Reporters encounter hospital’s lack of transparency

Blythe Bernhard and Jeremy Kohler of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigated a string of serious mistakes at a local hospital and found the story of a 16-year-old girl who suffocated in a bean-bag chair after being sedated. It’s a remarkable and chilling story on its own and, as AHCJ Immediate Past President Trudy Lieberman points out, it’s made even more valuable for health journalists thanks to Kohler’s willingness to explain his investigative process.

Acting on multiple tips referring to a botched 2007 kidney removal, Kohler began the laborious process of triangulating the error. You should really take a minute to read his entire explanation, but if you really don’t have time, just take note that his path was something like this: Tips from sources -> Joint Commission -> Missouri Division of Insurance -> National Practitioner Data Bank -> Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services -> Missouri Board of Professional Registration for the Healing Arts -> The actual hospital.

And even then, he was unable to get clear confirmation that surgeons had removed the wrong kidney from a patient. Instead, the hospital cited privacy regulations.

Last week, officials with SSM Health Care, the St. Louis-based corporation that operates DePaul and several other hospitals, said they could not speak about specific patient cases because of federal privacy laws. “The desire to defend ourselves and paint an accurate and full picture does not outweigh our patients’ right to privacy,” they said in a statement.

Even a subject like this, which clearly involves what Kohler calls “information that patients in need of a surgeon would be interested in knowing,” the obstacles between readers and the truth about a “never event” appear insurmountable.

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