Double-Booked: When Surgeons Operate On Two Patients At Once

Kaiser Health News, July 12, 2017

The article detailed concerns by some doctors and other hospital staff about complications — including one patient who was paralyzed and two who died — possibly linked to double-booking over a 10-year period. It described patients waiting under anesthesia for prolonged periods and surgeons who could not be located, leaving residents or fellows to perform surgeries without supervision.

Patients who signed standard consent forms said they were not told their surgeries were double-booked; some said they would never have agreed had they known.

The practice has also figured prominently in cases in South Florida, Nashville and, most recently, Seattle.

Related: 'Alarmed' Senate Committee Wants Action on Concurrent Surgeries

Critics of the practice, who include some surgeons and patient-safety advocates, say that double-booking adds unnecessary risk, erodes trust and primarily enriches specialists. Surgery, they say, is not piecework and cannot be scheduled like trains: Unexpected complications are not uncommon.

All patients “deserve the sole and undivided attention of the surgeon, and that trumps all other considerations,” said Michael Mulholland, chair of surgery at the University of Michigan Health System, which halted ­double-booking a decade ago. Surgeons might leave the room when a patient’s incision is being closed, Mulholland said. A computerized system records the doctor’s entry and exit.

“It doesn’t do any good to check out your surgeon if they’re not even going to be in the room,” said Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumers Union’s Safe Patient Project. “We all know about the dangers of multitasking. This adds a layer of danger if you have the most expert person coming in and out.”

Indiana orthopedic surgeon James Rickert regards double-booking as a form of bait-and-switch. “The only reason it has continued is that patients are asleep,” said Rickert, president of the Society for Patient-Centered Orthopedics, a doctor group.

“Having a fellow so you can run two rooms helps augment your income,” he added. “You can bill for six procedures: You do three and the fellow does three.” The critical portion of the operation required by Medicare and designated by the surgeon can mean “running in and checking two screws for 10 seconds.”

Defenders of the practice, which has been the subject of a handful of studies with mixed results, say it can be done safely and allows more patients to receive care.

Kaiser Health News

Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

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