Questions Surround USC and Its Disgraced Ex-Med School Dean

Marcia Frellick

July 24, 2017

Questions are multiplying after Carmen Puliafito, MD, who had been dean of the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles from 2007 to March of 2016, was suspended by the university on Friday, days after the Los Angeles Times revealed repeated instances of his illegal drug use.

USC officials said in a statement that they have "initiated the required process to terminate Dr Puliafito's employment at USC."

The Times, in extensive reports first made public July 17, detailed Dr Puliafito's drug use with young companions in 2015 and 2016 based on videos and witness accounts reporters obtained.

According to the Times, Dr Puliafito, 66, a renowned ophthalmologist and fundraiser for the university, used drugs including methamphetamine while he was dean. The partying reportedly happened in locations including hotel rooms, cars, and his campus office, in the company of much younger addicts and criminals.

In one video, Dr Puliafito is reportedly shown dressed in a tuxedo with an orange pill on his tongue saying, "Thought I'd take an Ecstasy before the ball."

In another, he heats a pipe used to smoke meth and inhales. Next to him a young woman appears to smoke heroin from heated foil.

Dr Carmen Puliafito (Source: REX/Shutterstock)

According to the Times, reporters repeatedly contacted the university with questions about the dean for more than a year, sometimes describing information they had gathered.

"USC's leaders never responded to the inquiries. Numerous phone calls were not returned, emails went unanswered and a letter seeking an interview with USC President C.L. Max Nikias to discuss Puliafito was returned to The Times by courier, unopened," according to the report.

In March 2016, Dr Puliafito resigned as dean, but continued as a faculty member and continued to accept new patients at campus eye clinics until mid-July 2017. His faculty page is now removed and a Pasadena number listed for him is disconnected.

"Obligation to Examine"

Asked about the university's responsibility over the past year, Art Caplan, PhD, director of the division of medical ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City, told Medscape Medical News, "This isn't getting information from some alt right fringe organization. This is a legitimate mainstream media organization and I think they have an obligation to examine what the charges are."

"You can't have leaders compromised by drug use setting a horrible example for students and other faculty, jeopardizing donor relationships and alumni relationships, so I think they were slow to move."

However, they weren't necessarily slow to decide to fire him, Dr Caplan added, given Dr Puliafito's right to due process.

"But I certainly think the weight of the evidence as it began to accumulate required a suspension while they took a look," he said. "He was in a pivotal, pivotal role."

Dr Caplan says the likely next step for Dr Puliafito will be rehabilitation. "Medicine tends to be kinder to doctors with addiction problems than other professions might be," he said.

He said suspension while Dr Puliafito undergoes treatment will likely be followed by loss of his medical license.

Additional fallout may include patients questioning the care they received from Dr Puliafito and donors may question their investments, he added.

According to the Times report, 3 weeks before he resigned Dr Puliafito was present when a 21-year-old woman overdosed in a Pasadena hotel room.  She was treated and then returned to the party, according to the report.

Dr Puliafito continued to represent the university until the news broke a week ago. He was honored June 7, 2017, at a reception attended by 150 colleagues, friends, and former students "in recognition of his leadership and accomplishments as the former dean of the Keck School of Medicine." By Monday, the publicity around that event had been removed from the Keck website. The Times report said that Dr Puliafito estimated he brought in $1 billion in donations to the university and oversaw research grants totalling more than $200 million.

According to Keck's website, Dr Puliafito coinvented the technology of optical coherence tomography, and was the first to use this technology to study the human macula in health and disease.

"Egregious Behavior"

In a memo  dated July 21, Michael W. Quick, PhD, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, wrote after questions mounted about why the university did not act sooner:

"Because this is an issue that is concerning to our entire community, I am writing with an update on our actions regarding former medical school dean Carmen Puliafito. As I said in my memo on Wednesday, we are making decisions as best and as swiftly as we can, given the information we have at any particular time.

"I know many people wanted us to act on allegations and hearsay, but we needed actual facts. Today, we were provided access to information of egregious behavior on the part of the former dean concerning substance abuse activities with people who aren't affiliated with USC. This was the first time we saw such information first-hand. It is extremely troubling and we need to take serious action."

In a letter from USC president C. L. Max Nikias to the USC community he wrote, "Reports of high-powered executives, doctors, and others with substance abuse issues have become all too common — individuals who function in their workplace but have serious issues affecting their private lives."

"Our new dean of the medical school, Rohit Varma, who has been with us for the last 16 months, shares the view that we must be more aware of signs of distress in ourselves and in others, and be willing to raise our concerns."

The California Medical Board confirmed to the Times that it is investigating the allegations, but it does not comment publicly on such matters.

USC is a private university but gets public funding for medical research.

Dr Caplan is a contributing author and adviser for Medscape.

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