Dr. Dennis Burke was a star orthopedic surgeon at a prestigious hospital. But one of the hospital’s practices nagged at him: Some surgeons could run more than one operation at a time, and sometimes the procedures overlapped for hours.
The practice was not unique to Massachusetts General Hospital, where Burke worked. But he worried that patients were at risk and began complaining to his superiors. When their responses did little to appease him, Burke went public. His concerns eventually contributed to a Boston Globe Spotlight investigation, stirring a national debate that stretched to the US Senate Finance Committee. The world’s largest surgeons organization implemented new guidelines last year about the practice, called concurrent surgery, and the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine has given preliminary approval to a rule that would require surgeons to document each time they enter and leave an operating room.
“I think a lot has changed,” says Burke. “The most important thing is a practice that was totally unknown to patients is now broadly known.”
Burke’s outspokenness led to a painful separation from Mass. General. He was fired for what hospital officials described as significant, unprecedented breaches of confidentiality policies; Burke believes it’s because he blew the whistle. The hospital has defended its surgery policy as safe for patients and effective in training young surgeons as they assist attending surgeons overseeing simultaneous operations.
Whether or not others agree with Burke, no one can doubt that he has changed the conversation about overlapping surgeries.
“I’ve done about 10,000 hip and knee replacements in my career,” says Burke, who now works at a community hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Milton. “In the long run, I think this advocacy will more significantly impact patients.”