"Heart Failure"

Houston Chronicle
5/20/2018

For decades, Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston has been celebrated as one of the nation’s best heart hospitals. A yearlong investigation by the Houston Chronicle and ProPublica revealed a far different reality. 

Reporters Mike Hixenbaugh and Charles Ornstein uncovered internal dysfunction and poor surgical outcomes at St. Luke’s, as well as research violations and undisclosed conflicts by one of its leading surgeons. 

Even as the hospital advertised its heart program in glowing terms, far more patients than would have been expected were dying following heart transplants. Our reporting revealed that hospital leaders were made aware of these issues but had taken little action, putting patients at risk. 
The investigation had swift and potentially life-saving impact. Within days of publication, the hospital suspended the heart program. Then, Medicare cut off its funding. Later, St. Luke's replaced its top heart transplant surgeon and fired three of the hospital's top executives, including its president. 
Patients and loved ones who had been kept in the dark are now seeking answers. Five heart recipients or their surviving family members have cited our stories in malpractice lawsuits against St. Luke’s or its doctors since July. 

In response to the reporting, Dr. Deborah Meyers, the heart program’s former medical director, wrote a letter to the hospital’s president and shared it with reporters: “In my opinion,” Meyers wrote, “the shocking story of the Baylor St Luke’s CHI transplant program is one of greed, careerism, corporate takeovers, appalling administrative oversight, failure of leadership, poor hiring practices, completely avoidable lawsuits, and the inevitable public distortions of their underlying mission, all of which have occurred as medicine has become perverted into ‘big business.’” 

More than 275 medical professionals, patients and surviving family members responded to a confidential survey posted with our stories, leading us to probe deeper. One story revealed poor outcomes at St. Luke’s following coronary bypass surgeries. Another detailed the hospital’s harsh response to a physician who spoke up about patient safety concerns. Finally, in November, we reported on an increase in patient deaths following liver and lung transplants in 2017, at a time when St. Luke’s was marketing both programs as “#1 in Texas.” 

Without our reporting, ailing patients would still be in the dark about problems at St. Luke’s, and federal regulators might not have forced changes needed to protect them. The series is a superb example of investigative journalism in the public interest. We are proud to submit it for your consideration.

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Submitted by Elizabeth Pudwell.