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Medical moral compass important

Most of us are guilty of it to some extent.

Yes, we want to believe that people in the medical field have a moral compass second to none, that they’re dedicated to the noble ideal of selflessly helping heal their fellow man.

Of course, elevating health professionals to a higher moral plane — a deliberate delusion cloaked in the fervent hope that when we’re hurting they’ll be more committed to their work than we sometimes are — is dangerous if regulators and cops also elevate them, giving medical personnel the benefit of the doubt when it comes to right and wrong.

We don’t know if that’s at least part of the reason Dr. Dipak Desai got a free ride from authorities for years, despite warnings from other practitioners that he was engaged in unconscionable practices. We do know, however, from evidence produced at the murder trial where he was convicted, that if he had been treated like the thug he is, Las Vegas wouldn’t have endured a killer outbreak of hepatitis.

When it was revealed last week that two former Sunrise Hospital nurses fired in connection with the 2010 death of a newborn from a broken catheter would not be prosecuted and that police dropped the case, the danger of giving powerful medical professionals the benefit of the doubt seemed apparent in another way.

Nurses Sharon Ochoa-Reyes and Jessica May Rice went through hell for three years basically on the word of Sunrise Hospital executives, who used a flawed report to call for a criminal investigation. Helpful police branded the nurses “persons of interest” in a probe into “intentional patient harm.” The nurses were called baby killers. Rice went bankrupt and needs depression medication. Ochoa-Reyes can’t sleep.

After the case was dropped, Sunrise’s reaction was predictable: “Sunrise … respects … the challenge for the district attorney in predicting whether the evidence proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

What evidence? Sunrise couldn’t even come up with evidence for the state nursing board to keep the licenses of the nurses suspended. (Their licenses were temporarily suspended when police told the board the nurses were a target of a criminal probe.)

Only the lowest burden of proof had to be met — lawyers call it 51 to 49 percent — for the nursing agency to suspend. But Sunrise didn’t have it, let alone evidence to support guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

While not a lawyer, I went through the hundreds of documents subpoenaed by the nursing board for its investigation and couldn’t find anything pointing a finger at the nurses. Though on duty when the incident occurred that resulted in the death of the baby, Rice was doing charting work and Ochoa-Reyes did not work on the baby, the documents revealed.

Remember, arbitrators ruled the nurses should get their jobs back and a federal judge reinforced the rulings.

Though the subpoenaed documents show Sunrise had problems with broken catheters for months, it wasn’t until failures ultimately causing Miowne Obote’s death and another child’s injury that Sunrise had a forensic expert examine catheters. (FDA reports revealed identical catheters broke because of product failure at other U.S. hospitals.)

In a 2010 email to employees explaining why Sunrise asked police to conduct an investigation, CEO Sylvia Young said it was because the report of a forensic engineer hired by Sunrise “showed the lines had been cut.”

But W. Don Bunn, the engineer hired by Sunrise, told me in 2010 that the lines could have snapped from product failure. He said he was only asked to see if the catheter lines could have been cut. On six catheters he was able to simulate cuts he saw in photos of broken Sunrise catheters with scissors and razor blades.

“They didn’t ask me to test for product failures,” Bunn said, adding he was surprised Sunrise didn’t want to know. “That’s what I’m usually asked to do.”

Bunn’s flawed report was used by coroner Mike Murphy — who admitted his office did not do independent testing — to rule Baby Obote’s death a homicide. After learning Bunn said product failure could have caused the catheter to break, Murphy said such information could change his ruling to accidental death.

(A federal agency has tested the catheters. Though results aren’t yet public, it’s a safe bet a criminal probe wouldn’t have been dropped if they were found to be deliberately cut.)

Could Sunrise, as Ochoa-Reyes’ attorney George Kelesis argues, have used the nurses as scapegoats to deflect attention from a dangerous problem that should have been corrected much earlier? Though Sunrise officials say no, Kelesis notes Sunrise and its parent company, HCA, occasionally seem to lose their moral compass.

Earlier this year, Sunrise was the only Nevada hospital and one of 55 in the nation — 23 of the hospitals were HCA’s — that agreed to pay the federal government a total of $34 million to settle allegations that the facilities submitted false claims to Medicare for a back procedure. In 2002 and 2003, HCA paid settlements for its chain totaling $1.7 billion, the highest heath care fraud settlements in U.S. history.

Pray Sunrise/HCA now has a strong moral compass. Our lives may one day be in their hands.

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.

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