Doctor says she was fired for blowing whistle

A physician says St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital fired her for reporting what she calls billing irregularities to federal authorities. June Caruso, MD, was a pediatric neuro-oncology fellow at St. Jude in Memphis, TN, until she was fired in 2000. She recently filed a lawsuit alleging that she was fired because she provided information to federal authorities that resulted in an investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) and Office of Research Integrity (ORI).

Caruso’s main charge was that the hospital billed the government for electroencephalogram tests that were never read, interpreted, or recorded in patients’ records. ORI closed its investigation without taking action against the hospital, but both ORI and OHRP are investigating whether Caruso was fired improperly.

OHRP reports that its investigation of St. Jude found problems with the hospital’s handling of EEGs performed on research subjects and evidence that children were inappropriately enrolled into a cancer drug study. Caruso’s court filings include a July 2001 letter to the hospital from OHRP in which the office outlines deficiencies in St. Jude’s EEG procedures, such as five-year delays in entering EEG results into patients’ records. OHRP says some EEGs apparently remained unread until they were dictated into the records years after they were conducted. A statement from St. Jude acknowledges some delays in the handling of EEGS, but says better procedures are in place now.

The OHRP letter also states that two children who did not meet eligibility criteria were enrolled in a cancer drug study without the approval of the institutional review board, but notes that the hospital has improved its procedures and investigators were satisfied with the changes. OHRP found no evidence of misreading of MRIs and misuse of radiation therapy for children with cancer.

Caruso’s lawsuit seeks $12 million in damages and reinstatement to her position at the hospital. She claims that St. Jude’s offered a severance package of $25,000, but insisted that she make no comments about patient care at the hospital. St. Jude’s issued a statement denying that Caruso’s firing was in retaliation for her report, saying the charge was "completely unwarranted." The hospital also set up their own committee to investigate the charge of retaliation.