The walls have ears, as the saying goes, but so do sedated patients whose smartphones have been set to “record.” In a recently concluded malpractice trial, that fact not only cost a Maryland doctor some money but subsequently her job, as a June 23 story in the Washington Post reports.
The case involved a Vienna, Virginia, man who underwent a colonoscopy at a large Reston medical suite on April 18, 2013. While being prepped for the procedure, the man (identified only as D.B. in court papers) set his smartphone to record. His idea was to capture any postsurgery instructions that his physician, a gastroenterologist, might give to him, because foggy patients sometimes misunderstand or fail to remember postsurgical instructions. Then, wearing the standard surgical gown, the man placed his phone into the pocket of his pants and was wheeled into the surgical suite, where attendants placed the pants (with the cell phone still in record mode) under the operating table.
When the man later played back what he had recorded, he discovered to his surprise that he had inadvertently captured the entire exam and that, as part of the recording, “the surgical team had mocked and insulted him as soon as he drifted off to sleep.” He also discovered other problematic discussions during his colonoscopy, including one by doctors to avoid him after the procedure. The most egregious remarks, the trial jury found, were made by anesthesiologist Tiffany M. Ingham, then part of Aisthesis, an anesthesiology practice in Bethesda, Maryland.
The Comments Were Really Bad
Among her comments while the patient was sedated were:
- “After 5 minutes of talking to you in pre-op, I wanted to punch you in the face and man you up a little bit.” Court papers show that during pre-op, the patient had told Ingham that he had passed out once while having his blood drawn.
- “I’m going to mark ‘hemorrhoids,’ even though we don’t see them and probably won’t.” In fact, Ingham later included a false diagnosis of hemorrhoids in the man’s medical chart.
- “People are into their medical problems. They need to have medical problems.” Ingham reportedly made this statement after declaring the sedated patient a “big wimp.”
The anesthesiologist also suggested to the medical assistant present that the patient’s rash might be syphilis or tuberculosis and that he might be gay.
The trial jury failed to find the humor in any of this. For Ingham’s comments about syphilis and tuberculosis, it awarded the plaintiff $100,000; for her falsification of the medical record, it awarded him $200,000; and for punitive damages, it handed him an additional $200,000.
On the opening day of the trial, the gastroenterologist in the case, Soloman Shah, was dropped from the suit, despite failing to prevent Ingham from falsifying the medical record, among other things. (To date, neither Ingham nor Shah has faced any disciplinary action by the Virginia Board of Medicine.)
A statement issued by Ingham’s former anesthesiology practice after the jury verdict indicates no intention to appeal: “We apologize to this patient and regret the distress and suffering that this most unfortunate incident caused. The anesthesiologist involved is no longer with our practice. Once we learned of this incident, we assured that every anesthesia staff member reviewed and reiterated their pledge to abide by our professional organization’s code of ethics.”