Saint Agnes Patient Sues Over Mix-Up

By Tracy Correa, The Fresno Bee, Calif.

May 20–For four months, Edward Hobbs believed he might die. A biopsy on his lung had come back positive for cancer, and he had surgery to remove a portion of his lung.

But it was all a mistake. He didn’t have cancer.

Doctors didn’t tell him they were wrong until two months after the December 2006 surgery.

Hobbs and his wife, Christina Hobbs, are now suing doctors involved in his care, Saint Agnes Medical Center and its pathology department.

The medical malpractice lawsuit, filed in February, alleges that Hobbs’ cancer diagnosis and surgery were based on a biopsy, or tissue sample, that belonged to another patient. That patient had breast cancer, said Hobbs’ Fresno attorney, John Ormond.

It’s unknown how many mix-ups like Hobbs’ lead to such medical mistakes. But the Institute of Medicine says up to nearly 100,000 people die in hospitals each year as a result of medical errors. Many more are harmed.

The Hobbs family went through a terrible ordeal, Ormond said. “He and his wife and daughter and son believed he had cancer, which of course could be terminal,” he said.

Ormond said his clients did not want to be interviewed. They did not respond to attempts to reach them at their home.

Cases such as Hobbs’ have prompted a greater call for hospitals to reveal and take responsibility for medical errors.

In California, a new law took effect July 1, 2007, that requires hospitals to report 28 specific adverse events — from surgery on the wrong body part to anything that causes death or serious injury to a patient. The California Department of Public Health must make information on investigations related to the mistakes publicly available next year.

And Medicare announced last year it will no longer pay the extra costs of treating preventable errors in hospitals.

Dr. Robert Wachter, professor of medicine at University of California at San Francisco and author of the 2004 book “Internal Bleeding: The Truth Behind America’s Terrifying Epidemic of Medical Mistakes,” said millions of people are victims each year of mistakes — from minor to serious — made in hospitals and doctors’ offices.

Wachter said it’s not that mistakes are occurring more often, “we are just hearing about them more.”

Saint Agnes spokeswoman Jaime Huss, citing the Hobbses’ pending litigation, said hospital officials wouldn’t comment on the case.

The hospital and Dr. Tai-Po Tschang, head of pathology at Saint Agnes, also named in the lawsuit, deny the negligence allegations in court documents.

Tschang said of the lawsuit, “I’m aware of it,” but gave no additional comment.

Dr. Howard S. Robin, a San Diego pathologist who testifies as a medical expert in litigation, said medical cases are not always clear-cut and mistakes happen. “It’s a shame when these things happen,” he said.

But mistakes are rare, he said.

Robin said he didn’t know enough to comment specifically on the Hobbs case, but he relayed how such a case might be confused by a doctor: “The tissues don’t look the same, but the cancers can look the same.”

Laboratories typically have safeguards, he said. “I don’t want patients to be unduly concerned that the hospital is going to make this mistake,” Robin said. “It’s exceedingly uncommon.”

Monica Medina, a Fresno woman who had her kidney removed two years ago at University Medical Center, experienced a records mix-up similar to Hobbs’.

Her kidney was removed in April 2006 based on a computed tomography, or CT, scan that belonged to another patient, said Kent Henderson, a Southern California lawyer who is representing Medina.

Medina’s case sparked a state health investigation and an order that Community Medical Centers, a nonprofit group that owns UMC, fix its records policies. The state’s six-page report said a CT scan of a patient with a mass above the kidney about the size of a grapefruit was inadvertently assigned to Medina.

In September 2006, Medina filed her lawsuit against Community Medical Centers for the unnecessary operation. She also is suing several doctors involved in her care, and in March added Fuji Film, General Electric and Hewlett Packard, each of which contributed to the computerized imaging system used by Community.

John Zelezny, spokesman for Community, said he is not aware of Medina’s lawsuit and could not comment on it.

Following the state investigation, Community said it made corrections to its computerized records system.

Henderson suggested that many mistakes are happening because of increasing reliance on computer technology and digital data with too few human checks and balances.

“It’s quite a thing to be told they cut out a piece of your body there was nothing wrong with,” he said.

The reporter can be reached at [email protected] or (559) 441-6378.

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