Wilmington, NC -- Eight medical malpractice lawsuits have been filed by patients who said a doctor at New Hanover Regional Medical Center performed one type of gastric bypass when they had agreed to a different one.
Hospital administrators held a news conference Wednesday to discuss the lawsuits, which involve Dr. Steven E. Olchowski, who longer works in Wilmington. Lawsuits were filed as early as 2002 in New Hanover County Superior Court and continued into January of this year.
The lawsuits claim that Olchowski told patients he would perform a surgery called Roux-en-Y, but instead performed a minigastric bypass.
Both types of gastric bypass surgery make the stomach smaller and allow food to bypass part of the small intestine. Patients thus feel full more quickly and, by bypassing part of the intestine, fewer calories are absorbed and weight loss is achieved. The difference between the two surgeries is how the stomach and intestines are attached.
Health insurance often covers Roux-en-Y, which costs about $25,000, while it does not cover minigastric bypass, which costs $15,000 to $20,000, in North Carolina.
The lawsuits name as defendants Olchowski, New Hanover Regional, Sina Surgical Associates, PA, and Atlantic Bariatric Center, the offices Olchowski worked through, and Conrad J.R. Miranda IV, a doctor he worked with.
Attorneys Jennifer Umbaugh and Melissa Pollock, who represent six of the patients, said their clients had serious complications from the minigastric bypass, such as stomach ulcers and continual nausea and vomiting. All of them had a second surgery to convert the bypass into a Roux-en-Y.
"What happened shouldn't have happened," Umbaugh said. "There's no reason for it to have happened. You trust your doctor to tell you the truth about what he's going to do to you."
It wasn't immediately clear how much the lawsuits sought in compensation.
The surgeries were performed between December 2000 and the spring of 2002. The hospital placed a moratorium on minigastric bypass in 2002.
Dr. David Miles, general surgeon and chairman of the bariatric services committee at New Hanover Regional, said Roux-en-Y has fewer long-term ill effects. He said that about 10 percent of the people who have the minigastric bypass performed experience long-term complications.
Olchowski, 57, resigned from New Hanover Regional's medical staff July 1, 2003. He now practices general surgery at Ionia County Memorial Hospital in Michigan.
Hospital spokeswoman Laurie Tjalsma said Olchowksi does not perform the surgery there because elective surgery is limited at the 74-bed facility. Olchowski did not return a call Wednesday to the Star-News of Wilmington.
He is licensed in both North Carolina and Michigan, according to state medical board records.
The lawsuits charged that the hospital knew what Olchowski was doing and repeatedly told him not to. But Dr. Samuel Spicer, vice president of medical affairs at New Hanover Regional, said at the news conference Wednesday that the hospital didn't know patients were misled until after lawsuits were filed and an internal investigation began.
The hospital has sent letters to 55 patients who might have been misled about the type of procedure performed on them, Spicer said.
"We cannot be sure about any conversation in Dr. Olchowski's office between him and his patients," Spicer said, reading from a prepared statement. "It may be that proper consent was given. The leadership of New Hanover Regional Medical Center feels strongly, however, that those patients deserve and have a right to know they may have had a procedure performed other than the one they consented to."
The hospital has offered to help pay for what insurance won't cover, such as follow-up medical visits, tests and any corrective procedures that might be necessary, Spicer said.