The Hippocratic Oath is sort of like The 10 Commandments for doctors. It starts out with a startlingly simple proposition: First, do no harm. As much of medicine involves treatments that can have bad outcomes, in modern terms this directive can often be interpreted as meaning a doctor should not subject a patient to unnecessary risks. That certainly makes sense. Who would want a procedure or medication where the odds of it hurting you outweigh the odds of it helping you?
What happened in this case is that the veteran got a surgery he didn’t need. The procedure here, a carotid endarterectomy, is done to reduce a patient’s risk of having a stroke. The surgeon cleans the plaque out of the blood vessels in the neck. However, it is an operation with a significant complication rate and stroke is high on the list of dangerous complications. With this in mind, you don’t want to do this surgery except on patients where the benefit of preventing a likely future stroke make the genuine risk of the surgery acceptable. Here, the veteran did not have any symptoms and the testing showed that the blockages of his arteries were way below the level that would justify this procedure. However, the VA doctors told our client he needed it and, as almost all of us would do, he agreed to it. He had the dreaded complication, a stroke, and because of that he will likely live the rest of his life with very real physical impairments.
I am glad we were able to do something for this veteran, but the money we recovered for him does not give him back what he has lost. We all live with risk all the time and medical treatment can be risky. That’s life, but subjecting someone to a serious risk that is clearly not necessary is very wrong. It certainly was here.
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