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Jury Exonerates "Double-Booking" Surgeon in High-Profile Case

In concurrent surgery, specialists move from OR to OR, performing the most challenging and intricate components of surgery.

Published: February 7, 2017

NO DAMAGES AWARDED Kirkham Wood, MD, failed to inform his patient, said the jury, but wasn't responsible for his injuries either.

A surgeon's decision to perform concurrent surgeries isn't to blame for a 45-year-old Massachusetts man's quadriplegia, says a Boston jury, which last week decided that no financial damages should be awarded in the highly publicized case, according to news reports.

Tony Meng, a Westwood, Mass., financial analyst, was among several patients featured in a Boston Globe 2015 "Spotlight" investigation into controversy over the practice of "double-booking" patients at Massachusetts General Hospital and elsewhere.

The jury agreed that spine surgeon Kirkham Wood, MD, had failed to inform Mr. Meng that he'd be operating on another patient at the same time he operated on Mr. Meng, but wasn't convinced that doing so was related to the complication that led to Mr. Meng's paralysis. According to the Globe, Mr. Meng's spinal cord bent at an acute angle as a result of his 2012 surgery and protruded through a hole in his dura, causing his condition. Mr. Meng says he would not have agreed to have the surgery had he been informed of his surgeon's plan to oversee another operation at the same time.

Dr. Wood, now a professor of surgery at Stanford University, has defended concurrent surgery, which is designed to allow in-demand specialists to move from OR to OR, performing the most challenging and intricate components of surgery while leaving residents and others to handle less-challenging tasks. The practice, he says, is common at teaching hospitals and that Mass General, where Mr. Meng's surgery took place, was "being crucified for something that happens at hospitals across the globe."

But Dennis Burke, MD, a highly respected orthopedic surgeon at Mass General at the time of Mr. Meng's surgery, shortly thereafter appealed to MGH to "shut this practice down," adding, "What will you tell this quadriplegic man and his family when they ask if his paralysis could have been prevented by having his surgeon be attentive only to him during his surgery?''

Dr. Burke's concern led to the Globe report and also to his firing after 35 years at Mass General for violating hospital rules and perhaps, the hospital alleges, federal privacy laws by supplying the Globe with copies of some internal records. He now practices at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Milton, Mass.

In the ensuing months, the U.S. Senate has addressed the practice and the American College of Surgeons has updated its guidelines on what it calls overlapping surgeries.

However, the judge in Mr. Meng's case did not allow testimony about the controversy at Mass General, ruling that the jury was to determine only whether Mr. Meng's treatment — including having his primary surgeon oversee another case at the same time — deviated from established standards of care and caused his injury.

In an email to Outpatient Surgery Magazine, a Mass General spokesperson said the hospital declined to comment on the case. Dr. Wood did not return a phone call.

Jim Burger


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