Metro

THOMAS FARRAGHER

No regrets for doctor who called out double-booking

Massachusetts General Hospital
Pat Greenhouse
Massachusetts General Hospital

Afew weeks after he got news he was being stripped of his stethoscope, Dr. Dennis Burke received something else from Mass. General Hospital, where he’d spent his professional life.

It came in a nice box with a boiler-plate note from the hospital president, who had ordered his firing. It was a pin with a green ribbon marking his 35 years of service, and on his last day at MGH in early November, Burke stuck it into his lapel before he walked out the door for the last time.

His last professional act at MGH was to pause before its iconic birthplace, the Bulfinch Building, to take a symbolic selfie. At the end, Burke, a star orthopedic surgeon, was alone.

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“I started working at MGH when I was 15,’’ Burke told me this week, sitting in his comfortable den in Milton. “It had been my home. When I was terminated, it was pretty unpleasant the way they did it.’’

Dennis Burke
Dr. Dennis Burke took this selfie on his last day of work.

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Burke was at the center of the Globe Spotlight Team’s report in October about the propriety and safety of a fairly common practice called concurrent surgery, or double-booking, in which doctors work on more than one patient at a time.

Burke is uncompromising on the issue. He called it unsafe and unethical, embracing a cautious approach that I think most of us expect from the doctor wielding the scalpel.

The hospital disagreed. MGH said it has taken careful steps to assure patient safety. The hospital accused Burke of violating hospital rules and perhaps federal privacy laws by supplying the Globe with copies of some internal records.

It got contentious and ugly as Burke knew it very well might before he shook his fist at the largest private employer and perhaps the most powerful institution in Boston. Resign or be fired, he said he was told.

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“I told him, ‘Don’t back down, not even an inch,’ ’’ his wife, Martha, said, smiling and sitting next to her husband.

“Martha told me, ‘I’ve been reading about whistle-blowers and they all get fired,’ ‘’ Burke recalled. “It was a hard decision to make because this could be the end of my career at the MGH.’’

But preparing yourself to be fired and being fired are two different things. He learned who his friends were. The nurses, particularly, had his back. He noticed some doctors, longtime associates, grew uncomfortable being seen chatting with him in hospital hallways. Careers to protect, you know.

But nearly all his patients have followed him to Milton Hospital, his new professional home. And the letters from the people he’s treated over the years have stacked up on a table in his home office, warm salve for professional wounds.

“I’ve really worked hard all my life to be a good doctor,’’ said Burke, whose patients have included the homeless, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and friends from the South Boston neighborhood where he grew up. “But trying to go up against an institution like MGH has been so hard. In a sense, I don’t think this could end up any other way. I feel very proud of what I’ve done. I have no regrets. Zero.’’

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Burke said that after MGH hired former US attorney Donald Stern to review what some at the hospital had called “the wild, wild west’’ of concurrent surgery, the hospital imposed new limits on double-booking.

The new policy allows an attending surgeon to be as far as a quarter-mile away during a patient’s surgery. “I sent Don Stern a note saying if you’re a quarter-mile away, you may as well be on the moon,’’ said Burke, who’s performed more than 10,000 hip and knee operations since 1984.

Burke thinks MGH and its advisers blundered by terminating him. “Probably the stupidest thing they did was to fire me,’’ he said. “If they didn’t, this wouldn’t be such a big story.’’

But it is. And that may explain why nearly 300 people turned out at the Fairmont Copley Plaza on Friday afternoon during a risk management seminar sponsored by Harvard Medical School to hear Burke’s version of events and why he believes concurrent surgery is unacceptable.

When he was done, the audience stood as one amid resounding applause.

And Dennis Burke, a man without regret and alone no more, stood on the stage and smiled.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.