Physicians have no excuse for years of unread echocardiograms

At least 200 patients whose echocardiograms went unread by a cardiologist for as long as three years have died, according to a new article in the New York Times by Anemona Hartocollis.

Equally troubling, a cardiologist reading some of the tests says that he has found “life-threatening diagnoses” on some of the tests.

The Times reports that medical officials said that “none of those patients needed ‘follow-up care.” But the cardiologist, who had been recruited from another hospital to read the tests, had a different perspective, saying that “about half of them were abnormal and that 20 percent to 30 percent of the patients needed immediate medical care.”

“This is very, very appalling, and to go on for three years, either the patients are dead or they’re alive by some miracle of God,” he told the Times.

Hartocollis also quotes several unnamed Harlem Hospital doctors who said “they had known about the backlog of 4,000 echocardiograms since 2007 but were helpless to do anything about it. They said they were chronically understaffed and had been rebuffed when they proposed to hospital administrators that more people be hired.” Said one hospital employee: “There is a culture in hospitals of keeping things in-house, and that, if anything, is the mistake we made.”

The remark from hospital doctors that they were “helpless” to do anything about the situation is patently false and inexcusable.

As one cardiologist said yesterday: “Something stinks, and it’s not just the echo lab. It’s the whole hospital.”

Even if the culture of the hospital made it impossible to change things from within, surely physicians aware of such gross malpractice had an absolute affirmative obligation to report this problem to medical or regulatory authorities. Further, physicians with patients whose echocardiograms had gone unread certainly had an obligation to inform their patients about the substandard care they were receiving.

This case also strikes me as a good example of why we shouldn’t kill all the lawyers just yet.

Larry Husten is a writer and editor of CardioBrief.org.

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