Customer service and public image took a big hit at Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital in Houston recently when a patient revealed that she had recorded her surgical team making disparaging remarks about during a procedure to repair a hiatal hernia.
Forty-four-year-old Ethel Easter was concerned about her surgeon’s attitude after an office encounter in which she felt he had been rude and dismissive, so before surgery she hid a small recording device in her hair braids, according to a report in The Washington Post. (The story is available online at http://wapo.st/1oEw4cM.) Soon after she was sedated, the surgeon recounted their dispute to the other doctors and said, “She’s a handful. She had some choice words for us in the clinic when we didn’t book her case in two weeks.”
The comments soon became personal and disparaging, with the surgeon and the anesthesiologist repeatedly referring to her belly button and laughing. At one point, the anesthesiologist said Easter was “always the queen,” and the surgeon responded, “I feel sorry for her husband.”
The surgeon also called the patient “Precious” several times, which Easter interpreted as a disparaging reference to a movie character who is African-American (like Easter), illiterate, obese, and sexually abused. At one point, the anesthesiologist asked, “Do you want me to touch her?” and the surgeon replied “I can touch her.”
“That’s a Bill Cosby suggestion,” someone said. “Everybody’s got things on phones these days. Everybody’s got a camera.”
The surgeon twice asked “Do you have photos?” He thought about it, he said, “but I didn’t do it.”
In addition, the recording makes clear that the surgeon knew Easter was allergic to penicillin but decided to administer Ancef, an antibiotic that causes side effects in some penicillin-allergic patients. After surgery, Easter’s arms swelled, she develop a persistent itch, and had trouble breathing. She eventually had to go to the hospital ED for treatment of the allergic reaction.
Easter sent a complaint letter and a copy of the recording to the director of risk management and patient safety at the hospital, who replied she had reminded surgical staff of the need for proper decorum, but, “After carefully listening to the recording that you provided, Harris Health does not believe further action is warranted at this time.”
The hospital is part of the Harris Health System, which issued a statement saying it could not comment on Easter’s care without her written authorization. The doctors in the recording are employees of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, which also declined to comment.
In 2015, jury ordered an anesthesiologist and her practice to pay a patient $500,000 for disparaging remarks made during surgery and a false diagnosis on his chart. The anesthesiologist was recording say she wanted to “punch you in the face and man you up a little bit,” among other comments. (See “Anesthesiologist ordered to pay $500,000 after patient’s smartphone records insults,” Healthcare Risk Management, August 2015, at http://bit.ly/1TvSZUw.)