When doctors, hospitals, insurers, and their captive lawmakers howl about how unfair malpractice lawsuits allegedly can be for modern medicine, patients who have suffered harms while seeking medical services should require loved ones, friends, and members of their community to view Bleed Out.
This new HBO documentary details the decade-long quest by comedian Steve Burrows and his family for justice for his mother, Judie. She was an energetic, retired teacher when she fell from her bike and needed emergency hip surgery. Before she had recovered, she fell again and needed a second operation. But this time, something went wrong: She lost more than half her blood, fell into a coma, and suffered irreversible brain damage that meant that she would spend the rest of her life in institutional care in rural Wisconsin.
The family digs and digs into the mystery of what seems to them to be their mother’s botched care, not for revenge or with anger — at first. Their overriding concern is that if they do not work to hold someone accountable — her primary care doctor, surgeon, anesthesiologist, the hospital, and emergency and intensive care staff — their mother may not be able to afford the recurring care she needs.
Indeed, as the film documents, the medical services and nursing home care she requires bankrupts Judie Burrows. Her family then pours money in, hoping that justice will be found, and she will be cared for.
But, as the documentary makes clear, the system is stacked against malpractice victims and their families. Pro-business lawmakers in Wisconsin, even as the Burrowses launch their case, put in place tough new changes that they claim are “tort reforms,” but that make it so difficult for patients to prevail in suits against doctors, hospitals, and insurers that the family’s first lawyer, a well-known and respected practitioner, retires.
They find another lawyer, equally impressive, and their case seems to strengthen: They discover there’s a gap between her primary doctor and surgeon as to who should have or did note for the other that Judie Burrows was taking a prescription drug, a blood thinner that made it more likely that she would bleed heavily during surgery. They learn that the anesthesiologist’s clinical records of Judie Burrows’ condition cannot match the patient that was sent to intensive care — his notes show a patient in great shape, while the ICU records show a woman in distress.
The ICU itself, however, has credibility problems. That’s because the big hospital chain that runs it saves money by cutting in-person staffing. The hospital chain insists that it can care for dozens of the most vulnerable and sick patients in ICU with tele-medicine — one physician-specialist monitoring a handful of nurses at several facilities and the ill from a control station many miles away. But testimony shows the ICU camera may not have been working on the night that Judie Burrows had her crisis. The nurse who cared most and most closely for her on that fateful night, also has gone in, after the fact, and made big changes to Burrows’ medical record.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also their struggles to access and afford safe, effective, and excellent medical care — and the nightmarish situations that force them to seek remedy almost of a last resort in malpractice suits. Doctors, hospitals, and insurers make crazy counter-factual claims about such suits.
In fact, they occur far less often, and with fewer and lesser damage awards by judges and juries than the medical establishment likes to assert. Instead, research shows the cases affect a small slice of doctors — many of whom put patients at needless risk and should have been put out their practice by colleagues and institutions with integrity and genuine care for patients’ safety.
I won’t give away the full plot of Bleed Out. Suffice to say the documentary is aptly titled, not only for what occurred to the movie’s central and tragic character but also for a sad and unacceptable tactic by individuals and institutions in response to a patient with a lifetime’s harm from medical error.