Military News

52 cancer cases affected by delays at Columbia VA, report says

The Dorn Veterans Administration Medical Center mismanaged its gastroenterology program so badly that, at one point in 2011, almost 4,000 patients were waiting to be examined, according to a report released Friday by the VA’s inspector general.

Delays in diagnosis and treatment were “associated” with cancers among 52 of those patients, according to the report. At least nine patients or their families had filed lawsuits about the delays, according to the report.

The report blames poor management of Dorn’s gastroenterology consultation program, including long delays in hiring staffers, failure to use tracking systems and spending only about $200,000 of $1 million designated to help reduce the backlog in examinations.

The report says steps finally were taken to resolve the backlog in consultations late in 2012, nearly three years after the concern first surfaced, in 2009. During the backlogged period, at least 280 patients were diagnosed with malignancies, including 52 cases in which the delay in diagnosis and treatment was “associated” with the cancers, according to the report.

Gastroenterology consultations, requested when physicians notice warning signs of colorectal cancer or when men reach 50 years old, often lead to a colonoscopy. VA regulations allow 60 days for a colonoscopy to be performed after a consultation is requested.

However, during the backlog period, waits of four to five months were common. One staff member said no progress was made until a patient died after a delayed consultation. The report said nine patients or their families had filed lawsuits about the delays.

More than 20 clinical providers and administrative staff were interviewed for the report, which noted “the narrative that emerged spans many years and involves a variety of complex factors.”

Among the factors:

Management/planning: On the hospital’s planning council, administrative personnel outnumbered clinical personnel by a four-to-one margin. In September 2012, administrative personnel decided to stage a blitz effort to reduce the backlog. They brought in physicians, nurses and technicians from other facilities without input from Dorn’s gastroenterologists and nurses. Also, there was a significant turnover in Dorn’s upper managers – five medical center directors, three associate directors and four chiefs of medicine – in recent years.

In May, The State requested information from Dorn about “a backlog of requests for colonoscopies” and any VA investigation under Freedom of Information act. An official with the hospital responded a week later, saying only, “I will forward to the appropriate staff member.” No information ever was released to the paper.

Robert U. Hamilton, who took over as Dorn’s interim medical center director in July, didn’t return a call to his office Friday seeking comment.

The report indicated several steps have been taken to reduce problems.

Dorn’s planning council now has more clinical personnel, for example. A case management system also is tracking services that are recommended and provided. The hospital’s staff also is closer to its authorized size, though the gastroenterology section chief and nurse manager left their jobs in the past eight months.

The report recommended the VA’s Southeastern leadership “take appropriate action in relationship to facility leadership deficits contributing to the GI consult backlog.”

A closer look at the numbers

According to a Veterans Administration report, the Dorn VA center mismanaged its gastroenterology program, resulting in:

3,800 - Backlogged examinations

52 - Cancers that were “associated” with delays in diagnosis and treatment

9 - Lawsuits thus far

SOURCE: VA inspector general