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Startling Report On Children’s Heart Surgeries

An anonymous source leaked audio of internal hospital discussions surrounding the pediatric heart surgery program of the University of North Carolina (UNC) medical center in Chapel Hill, NC to the New York Times, which published an article raising serious concerns about the rate of mortality and serious complications.

After a series of deaths and other complications arising in patients who underwent low-risk surgeries, a panel of cardiologists and other staff convened to discuss the issues. During this meeting, the chief of pediatric surgery stated of the surgical program: “It’s a nightmare right now. We are in crisis, and everyone is aware of that.”

The leaked audio revealed that all cardiologists in attendance expressed concerns about the program’s performance. The panel was unable to locate exactly what might be going wrong in the complex surgical program, which includes cardiologists, surgeons, anesthesiologists, intensive care doctors, and support staff. Possible causes, including inadequate resources, misgivings about the chief pediatric cardiac surgeon, and patient volume were discussed.

Cardiologists had been asking to review UNC’s mortality statistics for cardiac surgery but said they had not been able to get it for several years. Most other hospitals make this information available to the public. After repeated requests from The New York Times, UNC released data showing that for four years, it had a higher death rate than nearly all of the 82 institutions nationwide that publicly report.

No cause has yet been determined for UNC’s mortality rate. But what recourse do the families of these young patients (who may be victims of medical malpractice) have? Some argue that all victims of medical malpractice in North Carolina are denied justice, due to the state’s damage caps. In 2011, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation to cap pain and suffering damages in malpractice cases at $500,000 when the victim who died as a result of malpractice is not an income earner. That would apply to babies and children. The move was seen as an attempt by Assembly as part of an attempt to make North Carolina more “business friendly,” especially for the insurance industry.

Opponents of such damage caps argue that they endanger the general public. The threat of costly litigation acts as an enforcement mechanism: health organizations and practitioners are motivated to make sure that their policies and practices minimize the risk of medical malpractice. 

The constitutionality of the North Carolina legislation has been questioned. The author of the above-mentioned opinion piece feels a challenge in the court system could have a similar result to what occurred in Oklahoma. The state also passed a similar measure in the same year (2011), but just this year the state’s Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.

About the Author

Briggs Bedigian
Briggs Bedigian

H. Briggs Bedigian (“Briggs”) is a founding partner of Gilman & Bedigian, LLC.  Prior to forming Gilman & Bedigian, LLC, Briggs was a partner at Wais, Vogelstein and Bedigian, LLC, where he was the head of the firm’s litigation practice.  Briggs’ legal practice is focused on representing clients involved in medical malpractice and catastrophic personal injury cases. 

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