Malpractice Suit Exposes “Ghost Surgery” at the Cleveland Clinic

Sometimes patients sign up for surgery with an experienced surgeon who then allows a doctor in training, with far less experience, to do the actual surgery. If this hasn’t been disclosed up front by the surgeon and agreed to by the patient, the switcheroo is called “ghost surgery,” and it’s not acceptable. But exactly that has now occurred at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic, according to allegations in a new malpractice lawsuit reported by Diane Suchetka in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Retired Air Force Colonel David Antoon says in his legal complaint filed in court that he, his wife, and the surgeon, Dr. Jihad Kaouk, signed a consent form in advance agreeing that only Dr. Kaouk would do the surgery to remove Mr. Antoon’s prostate gland. He alleges in the suit that he has been left incontinent of urine and sexually impotent as a result of Dr. Kaouk allowing junior doctors to do the surgery.

The patient also contends that the hospital ombudsman who investigated his informal complaints told him there was no such consent form in his records at the hospital.

Surgical volume is critically important to a good outcome for prostate surgery, as previously reported on this patient safety blog. The author of one study in the Journal of the American Medical Association said he didn’t feel comfortable about his own competence with the “robot” device now widely used for prostate removal until he had had several hundred cases under his belt. So it’s understandable why Mr. Antoon would feel outraged that his wishes weren’t followed.

I discussed “ghost surgery” in my book, “The Life You Save.” Here is my advice for how you can avoid having this happen to you:

First, have a good discussion with the surgeon about who is going to do the critical parts of your surgery. If you don’t feel comfortable turning over those aspects of the surgery to a doctor in training, then say so.

Second, follow up by putting it in writing. One simple way to do so is on the consent form. It usually says something like “I authorize Dr. Jones and/or his designee to perform _____ [type of surgery filled in here] on me.” All you have to do is cross out the phrase “and/or his designee” and initial your cross-out.

Third, if you’re in a teaching hospital, you might want to consider some compromise that lets trainee doctors do the non-critical parts of the procedure. But you have every right to insist that only the experienced doctor do the delicate, critical work. If the surgeon resists your wishes, you may have to go to another surgeon.

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