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Concurrent Surgery Gets the Spotlight Treatment

Analysis  |  By Tinker Ready  
   March 24, 2016

The editor of the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting unit discusses his team’s landmark story that raises questions about the practice of concurrent surgeries and patient safety.

The debate over the safety of concurrent surgeries was ongoing when The Boston Globe’s team of investigative reporters tapped into it, says the paper’s Spotlight Team editor Scott Allen.

The Globe’s October 2015 series looked at complex orthopedic surgeries at Massachusetts General Hospital and beyond, raising questions about safety, clinical oversight, and informed consent. MGH bristled at the suggestion that patients could be harmed as a result of the way overlapping surgery is practiced. “Nothing could be further from the truth,“ it declared on the website it set up in response to the Globe‘s reporting.

Still, the report has triggered government inquiries and a review of the practice by the American College of Surgeons.

Allen, head of the news team that is now the stuff of Hollywood legend, spoke with me recently about what hospitals and health systems can take away from “Clash in the Name of Care.”

HLM: How did this story come about?

Allen: Concurrent surgery is something that is well known within the hospital community and among surgeons. It’s something that doesn’t come as a great surprise, but many members of the general public had no idea prior to us publishing this story.

We covered a court case that had nothing to do concurrent surgery. But, in the course of the oral arguments, there was a sidebar discussion about the way the plaintiff handled a case where the surgeon had three different cases going at once. The reporter who covered the case was [health writer] Liz Kowalczyk and it stuck in her mind.

The case involved a trauma surgery where the resident was mixing the cement to begin a hip replacement, and when it was time for the surgeon to do the surgery, the surgeon wasn’t there. [The resident’s] got the cement and she’s wondering where [the surgeon] is and she doesn’t dare to do the procedure on her own. So the anesthesiologist goes looking for the surgeon... The anesthesiologist testified that never in her career had she had to leave the OR to find the surgeon who was supposed to be the attending.

We started doing some research on it and found extremely good sources because there was a very lively debate inside MGH and we tapped into that debate. That’s how we were able to do the story. This is complex material and it can be extremely difficult for lay reporters to go toe-to-toe with surgeons if you haven’t also got extremely good sources who can explain every bend in the road. And we did.

Tinker Ready is a contributing writer at HealthLeaders Media.

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