Anesthesiologist Loses Lawsuit for Mocking Sedated Patient

Alicia Ault

June 29, 2015

A Virginia anesthesiologist is going to pay for not watching what she said about a patient while he was sedated during a colonoscopy.

A Virginia jury has awarded the patient $500,000 for comments made by Tiffany Ingham, MD, when she apparently believed the patient would never hear what she thought about him. The case has ignited opinions on social media and has professional societies defending the integrity of the vast majority of physicians.

The patient, an attorney, accidentally recorded conversation during his colonoscopy with his smartphone, and determined after the fact that Dr Ingham and the gastroenterologist, Solomon Shah, MD, along with the rest of the healthcare team, had engaged in inappropriate and demeaning discussions about him. They also discussed hiding from him after the procedure and entering a fake diagnosis of hemorrhoids into his medical record, which did occur, according to the Washington Post, which first reported the jury award.

According to the man's attorney, Michael Charnoff, on June 18, a Fairfax County Circuit Court jury awarded the plaintiff $100,000 for defamation, $200,000 for medical malpractice, and $200,000 in punitive damages — of which $50,000 was to be paid by Dr Ingham's practice, Safe Sedation PLLC, and $150,000 by Dr Ingham. The plaintiff is remaining anonymous, in part because he also alleged that his penis was touched and that it constituted sexual assault, said Charnoff.

About 5 minutes of the accidental recording was made public by the Washington Post, which has inflamed the public. News of the jury award was a top-trending item on Facebook for several days.

Professional societies didn't mince words about the ethical breach. "There's really no excuse" for Dr Ingham’s behavior, J. P. Abenstein, MD, president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA), told Medscape Medical News.

"Why Are You Looking, Retard?"

The recording reveals that before the procedure started, the man informed the medical assistant and the physicians of a rash on his genitals and said that he was taking gabapentin. During the procedure, Dr Shah said he wasn't interested, and added, "One of the nice things about being a specialist is I don't deal with that." Dr Shah practices with Gastrointestinal Medicine Associates, which has offices in Fair Oaks and Reston, Virginia.

Dr Ingham rejoined with, “One of the nice things about being an anesthesiologist is...making people shut the hell up."

She also warned everyone to avoid his genitals. "Just make sure you gown up. Don't want to accidentally rub up against it," she said, adding, "it's probably tuberculosis in the penis." That remark cost Dr Ingham $50,000. She noted that everyone would be fine with treatment, and Dr Shah agreed. "As long as it's not Ebola, it's OK," he said.

That comment made Dr Shah a party to the suit, which was filed in April 2014, almost eactly 1 year after the procedure. However, Dr Shah was dismissed from the suit on the first day of trial, according to the Washington Post.

Dr Ingham also mocked the patient's anxiety about seeing the placement of the IV line. "Well, why are you looking then, retard?" she was heard to say.

Dr Shah and Dr Ingham also discussed their annoyance with patients. "These people are into their medical problems," said Dr Ingham. Dr Shah said his patients are "holier than thou," and said he calls it "the Northern Virginia syndrome." Added Dr Shah, "too much Internet use, a little too much information."

And they mocked the patient's desire to be done by a certain time, blaming him for a more lengthy procedure because his colon was not clean. "I'm not going to be shy about saying, 'your crap was awful,' " said Dr Ingham. She said she would tell him, " 'You're not going to be out of here at 1:30 because of your own negligence,' " adding, "He's a lawyer, he'll understand that word."

Swift Condemnation

Dr Abenstein expressed dismay. "There's no reason to express those opinions in a professional setting," he said, adding, "If you don't have anything good to say, just keep your mouth shut."

He said that even if the physicians were frustrated or annoyed, they were duty bound to treat the patient with dignity. And, he said, "In a perfect world, someone in that room should have attempted to divert the conversation."

The ASA's ethical guidelines note, "Anesthetized patients are particularly vulnerable, and anesthesiologists should strive to care for each patient's physical and psychological safety, comfort and dignity. Anesthesiologists should monitor themselves and their colleagues to protect the anesthetized patient from any disrespectful or abusive behavior."

In a statement, the American Medical Association said, "The vast majority of physicians dedicate themselves every day to upholding the medical profession's fundamental values of respect and compassion."

In addition, "Patients have the right to courtesy, dignity and respect, and the AMA cannot condone when physicians surrender to petty and unprofessional conduct in violation of ethical obligations to the patients they serve."

The plaintiff's attorney would not comment on whether his client has in the past or is anticipating filing a complaint against Dr Ingham or Dr Shah with the Virginia Board of Medicine.

The Virginia board would not comment on any disciplinary proceedings, but a search of its database shows that Dr Ingham has a valid Virginia license and that there are no complaints or judgments against her. She also holds a Florida license, and Tavares, Florida, is her address of record, said a Virginia board spokesperson.

The Orlando Sentinel reported on June 24 that Dr Ingham has resigned her privileges at Florida Hospital Waterman, in Tavares.

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