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Wrongful death suit exposes dangers of physician-owned companies

A lawsuit filed against a spine surgeon has exposed problems with a phenomenon that most patients in Miami probably don't know exits: physician-owned distributorships (PODs). These companies supply parts and devices used in knee, hip, and heart surgery. They also provide about one-sixth of all spinal implants used in the U.S.

While most doctors with ownership in a medical technology company do not let that affect their medical decisions, the question is how many perform unnecessary surgeries in order to increase sales of their devices.

The case that has given this issue national media attention involves a Southern California spine surgeon. According to the man who is filing the wrongful death suit, his mother went to see the surgeon in 2010 because she was experiencing back pain. The doctor allegedly recommended surgery just minutes after meeting her, and before even properly examining her.

According to the suit, the 68-year-old woman acquired a severe infection shortly after the surgery to fuse her spine. She recovered, but was never able to walk. She died seven months later.

The lawsuit alleges that the surgeon recommended the unnecessarily risky procedure because he owned 20 percent of the company that manufactured the rods and screws used in the surgery. According to the suit, he did not disclose his affiliation with the company to the patient (although he had no legal obligation to do so). Moreover, because of her age, weight, and diabetes, she was not a good candidate for any surgery, much less an unnecessary one.

This suit is not the only one against the surgeon, who is now under investigation by the Justice Department. Twenty-eight suits have been brought against him emanating from his 17 months at the California hospital. Over half are related to implants sold by the medical technology company in which he has since sold his interest. The state's medical board is now deciding whether to revoke his license.

Most of us wouldn't think to ask a doctor if he or she had a financial stake in the company that makes the screws that will hold our new knee or hip in place. Nonetheless, this case provides a cautionary tale that patients should get a second opinion when a doctor (particularly one you just met) recommends surgery. While no amount of money can bring this woman back, it can provide some sense of justice for her family, and perhaps act as a deterrent to other physicians who put financial interests ahead of patient safety.

Source: CBS News, "Surgeon salesmen? Doctors profit from devices they put in patients" Ben Eisler and Jeff Glor, Oct. 24, 2013

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