Hospital vs. newspaper over coverage of doctor in Duluth

It’s not at all unusual for news organizations to be threatened with lawsuits, but fairly unusual for one to be filed. In Duluth today, however, a hospital has filed suit against the investigative reporting of the Duluth News Tribune.

St. Luke’s Hospital has filed suit against the paper for its report on neurosurgeon Stefan Konasiewicz, who worked at the hospital from 1997 to 2008.

In May, the paper ran a series of articles alleging the hospital was ignoring the number of malpractice suits filed against the doctor:

When he moved from Duluth about three years ago, Konasiewicz left behind two dead patients, one woman paralyzed from the neck down and six others who say his treatment caused them serious physical harm.

His former employer, St. Luke’s hospital, was aware of the harm Konasiewicz was alleged to have caused and yet continued to let him practice, according to records obtained and interviews conducted by the News Tribune.

In its lawsuit, the hospital says the paper knew that the hospital “had a rigorous Quality Assurance program, that all adverse outcomes were investigated, and that St. Luke’s has always engaged in an ongoing extensive peer review program,” and that state law and the rules for participating in Medicare required the hospital to have an accredited peer review program.

“To create this false news report, Defendants intentionally and deliberately mislead sources, quoted sources out of context, and purposefully avoided information that would contradict their preconceived story,” the lawsuit alleges.

In August, the paper followed up with two more stories about the efforts of colleagues to call attention to Konasiewicz, and seemed to imply that the administration looked the other way because he was making money for the hospital that was losing it before the doctor was hired:

Peter Goldschmidt, an orthopedic surgeon who shared patients with Konasiewicz as part of St. Luke’s trauma team, said he saw so many complications and adverse outcomes from his colleague that in the early 2000s he brought his concerns directly to St. Luke’s senior administration. People he addressed, he said, included CEO and President John Strange, Vice President of Clinics Sandra Barkley and Chief Nursing Officer JoAnn Hoag. He said he also spoke about Konasiewicz with the then-chair of St. Luke’s board, Wells McGiffert.

“I thought something had to be done because of the unacceptably high complication rate,” said Goldschmidt, who has worked in Duluth since 1994 with Orthopedic Associates, an independent practice that works with St. Luke’s. “Nothing seemed to change in (Konasiewicz’s practice). And I never received any follow-up.”

In an interview on Friday, Strange, who has been CEO of St. Luke’s since 1996, said the responsibility for taking any action against Konasiewicz lay with St. Luke’s doctors.

Strange said concerns that are brought to him or other administrators about any doctor are taken to the hospital’s medical executive committee, which is composed mostly of physicians and has the ability to discipline doctors or restrict their privileges. Strange said he is on the committee but does not have a vote.

“I’m not a physician,” Strange said. “Some of that stuff is so technical. I’m not in a position to make a judgment on whether or not something was good care.”

In its suit, the hospital said the critic of Konasiewicz quoted in the story, Peter Goldschmidt, worked for a company that was in “competition with St. Luke’s,” and that his statement was false. It also said had Goldschmidt raised his concerns with the hospital, it would have been required to investigate them.

The story that seems to be at the heart of the lawsuit was filed just as a negligence trial was starting in Stillwater, filed by a man who alleged a brain biopsy performed by Dr. Konasiewicz led to seizures, severe cerebral dysfunction and brain injuries. A week or so later, a jury cleared Konasiewicz.

This afternoon, the hospital issued this statement:

The false statements about St. Luke’s published by the Duluth News Tribune are unacceptable. This defamation lawsuit was brought because our patients, dedicated staff, and community deserve to know the truth and not be misled and misinformed by these false reports.

St. Luke’s is deeply disappointed in the Duluth News Tribune’s tactics to produce its false and defamatory reports. Patient safety and quality healthcare is our top priority at St. Luke’s. We are committed to making the truth known, to the extent allowed by law, particularly when it concerns the quality of care we provide our patients.

Notwithstanding the false and defamatory reports by the Duluth News Tribune, we are gratified by the numerous expressions of support that we receive everyday from our patients, staff and community.

In his statement, News Tribune Publisher Ken Browall said: “The stories portrayed what is unquestionably a matter of public safety and concern. We look forward to proceeding to court and the dismissal of this unwarranted complaint.”

  • Bob Moffitt

    I have worked as both a newspaper editor and a hospital public releations guy, so I have a foot in each camp.

    That said, the hospital doesn’t have a chance of winning this lawsuit. Also, good luck rebuilding a relationship with the News Tribune.

  • Mike miller

    I don’t work in either of those fields, but live in Duluth and It appears that St Luke’s has never had a great relationship with the DNT. Essentia, however, appears to spend MUCH more money on advertising than St Luke’s. It would be interesting to know how much more, actually…

    It’s also interesting that both the VP of marketing and communications and the communications specialist at Essentia were both former DNT employees….

    I wonder how many other connections…the DNT and Essentia actually have and if these close relationships and advertising contracts are skewing this newspaper attitudes about the competition at St Lukes

  • John O.

    Bob M., I am curious as to why you believe the “hospital doesn’t have a chance…” It seems to me that their possible defense would be based (in part) on the patient signing the consent for surgery. In addition, one would think that most people know that any surgical procedure carries some level of risk–especially if it involves neurosurgery. If I am a patient in that situation, I sure as heck am not signing any consent forms until I know what my insurance coverage is and I have at least one additional opinion.

    Please do not misunderstand me, I feel for those patients and their families who have suffered because of the alleged shortcomings of this physician. However, it also seems odd that the patient’s insurance company would simply go along and authorize an expensive procedure without requiring (at least) a second opinion.

    I’m not a doctor, nor have I ever portrayed one on TV, but my *perception* would be that this gets settled before it ever gets to a jury.

  • Bob Moffitt

    John q. I think that most judges would rule that the newspaper is protected by the 1st Amendment.

    While filing lawsuits against media outlets may be common, winning them is another matter.

  • John P.

    Mike M. raises an interesting point – shouldn’t the patient’s insurance company have prevented an unnecessary procedure?

    And the part about Dr. K not being able to obtain malpractice insurance through normal channels being a huge red flag – again, we’re relying on the insurance companies?

    This is what happens when health care is an industry and doctors are revenue centers.

  • Stephen

    I agree with both John’s regarding the inherent risk associated with these types of surgeries and the fact that we, as patient’s, have informed consent for the procedure.

    I feel as though St Luke’s is being repeatedly hit with this negative publicity. All about something that they were able to take care of after, what it seems were the appropriate avenues. This is a hospital that I would much rather prefer going to over Essentia, and have been more than happy with the care that I have received there.

    I agree with Mike about the Duluth News Tribune’s connection to Essentia’s wallet. All too common