Ask hospital executives what keeps them up at night, and it's highly unlikely they could conjure up a "Twilight Zone" scenario as disturbing as this one: While local television cameras capture the scene for the 6 p.m. news, dozens of former patients stage a loud, angry protest on the sidewalk outside the hospital, claiming that gross, unsanitary conditions inside left them with serious bacterial infections that caused fatal injuries or lingering complications and costly follow-up medical expenses.
But that, alas, is the full-blown public-relations nightmare visited upon Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Ky., the scene of a protest last week by many of the 85 or so individuals who have filed lawsuits charging the well-respected hospital with tolerating dangerously unsanitary conditions that led to bacterial infections from methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus.
One plaintiff, dramatically explaining the purpose of the demonstration to a local newspaper reporter, said he hoped "we just might save somebody's life" by alerting would-be patients to the alleged dangers within the hospital, the flagship of the Jewish Hospital & St. Mary's HealthCare system.
Ever since the first lawsuit was filed about three years ago, officials at Jewish Hospital have denounced the legal actions as frivolous, vowing to defend the hospital's reputation in court. About 18 cases have been dismissed for a number of reasons, and the first lawsuit set for trial is now scheduled to begin in mid-November in Jefferson County Circuit Court. In May, a judge ruled in favor of Jewish in a summary judgment in one case, writing that "no medical proof of negligence" had been offered, notes Jeff Polson, a hospital spokesman who dismissed the protest as part of a "continuing effort to gain medical attention."
"We are actively looking forward to taking these cases to trial," he says.
Michael O'Connell, a Louisville attorney who is co-counsel for most of the plaintiffs, contends that Jewish Hospital failed in its duty to provide a clean and "reasonably safe" environment for patients. "They claim they're a wonderful place," he says of hospital officials. "In fact, there were filthy, dirty surroundings."
As far as potential damages, the lawsuits could wind up costing Jewish Hospital some big bucks, O'Connell claims. He says that with medical expenses and pain and suffering, each case could cost Jewish $1 million to $2 million or more.
Hospitals may want to see events at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, N.Y., late last month as a lesson to be learned: Don't try to poison roof-dwelling pigeons unless you want sick and dying birds falling from the sky, forcing you to close your emergency room.
The hospital had brought in an exterminator to use the pesticide Avitrol to reduce the pigeon population on the roof. The chemical is designed to poison a few birds, whose distress calls would then drive off other members of the flock. Instead, "birds were coming down like dive bombers," said Schenectady Fire Chief Robert Farstad.
There were no reports of illness or injury from the incident at deadline, but several people went through decontamination after emergency crews discovered the poisoned birds.
Schenectady County health officials said they will investigate whether the pesticide was improperly mixed or applied.
The connection between spirituality and healing is widely debated in the healthcare industry, but last week the Federal Trade Commission weighed in on one family proponent of mixing religion and business. In a 26-page complaint the FTC charged Georgia preacher Jeffrey Wayne McLain; his two sons, Victor and Alexander; and their Marietta, Ga.-based companies, with numerous federal antitrust violations.
The FTC said the McLains pitched "healthcare business opportunities" to thousands of churchgoers who heard their radio and TV ads on Christian radio and attended their conferences in at least 15 cities. The FTC obtained a federal judge's order to stop the deceptive practices, freeze the corporate assets and distribute the proceeds to wronged consumers.
The agency alleged that beginning in March 2005 McLain and his companies began marketing illegal healthcare schemes on Web sites and at conferences that promised "guaranteed Medicaid patients" to attendees, thousands of whom paid anywhere from $65 to $2,495 for get-rich-quick schemes.
McLain and his companies operated a telemarketing operation through which they also pitched their healthcare "business opportunities." The FTC says the scheme involved instructing conference attendees to form two companies whose relationship would be untraceable: A not-for-profit would collect donations to give to the poor in exchange for their Medicaid provider numbers, and a for-profit would provide services to those Medicaid-eligible recipients, such as home care, nursing or transportation. The FTC said one of the pitches was to resell the Medicaid numbers to other providers, receiving a referral fee of $100 to $500 each.
Phone calls seeking comment from McLain and others allegedly involved in the schemes were not answered.