A former employee of Memorial Hospital is suing the hospital's operator, University of Colorado Health, which has leased Memorial from the city since 2012, alleging she called attention to a patient-safety issue last year and then was fired because of her report.
A subsequent no-notice inspection by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found Memorial "failed to maintain appropriate infection control processes in the areas of cleaning/disinfection of vaginal ultrasound probes, surgical instruments and procedure rooms," as well as other violations of procedures designed to prevent infections arising from using the probes on multiple patients.
The lawsuit was announced Tuesday by attorney Gary Kramer on behalf of Mary Elizabeth Falcone, who worked at Memorial for nearly 22 years as an ultrasound technician before being fired in September 2015 following several complaints she made about how use of and care for the equipment compromised patient safety.
Falcone's firing, the lawsuit alleges, violates a state law adopted in 2007 that protects health care workers from retaliation when reporting patient safety concerns.
"Falcone made multiple good faith reports and disclosures regarding potential threats to patient safety due to improper and/or inconsistent performance and documentation of HLD [high level disinfection] of vaginal ultrasound probes at UCH-MHS," the lawsuit states. Therefore, Falcone fulfilled her professional obligations to report unsafe practices, but yet was terminated for fulfilling those obligations, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit seeks unquantified damages for back pay and front pay (lost earnings if not reinstated) and emotional distress, and punitive damages.
In a news release, Kramer quotes Dr. Lawrence F. Muscarella, owner of LFM Healthcare Solutions LLC, a Pennsylvania-based quality improvement and consulting company, who analyzed Falcone's complaints and the state inspection.
"It is my opinion that at least some of the hospital's patients who underwent vaginal ultrasound during the past four years may have been, and likely were, exposed to vaginal probes potentially contaminated with infectious bacteria and/or viruses, including the 'CRE' superbug, the hepatitis B and C viruses, HIV, and HPV," Muscarella wrote. CRE is Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, commonly called the "nightmare bacteria" because of its resistance to antibiotics.
"Without screening the affected patients for disease, infection cannot be ruled out," Muscarella said, recommending the hospital consider notifying patients who might have been affected during the time the violations occurred, which is believed to be the last four years since UCH took over Memorial.
Muscarella also called for an independent audit of the hospital's relevant policies and procedures, both before and after Memorial implemented the state-imposed correction plan in July triggered by Falcone's complaint.
Kramer noted The Denver Post reported in May and June this year that nine patients at the University of Colorado Hospital, part of the UCH system, developed infections and three died after undergoing surgeries in which a medical device was used that was suspected of causing fatal infections nationally. The device, an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography duodenoscope, is inserted into a patient's throat and has proven hard to clean, leading it to be associated with serious infections, the newspaper reported. In response to those stories, UCH said it was unclear whether the infections had helped cause the deaths.
Memorial's Cary Vogrin says via email, "We do not have enough information at this time to comment."