WASHINGTON: Duke University Hospital turned to Burson-Marsteller last month when a botched transplant on a 17-year-old girl attracted harsh media attention and stirred up a national debate on malpractice.
On February 7, Jesica Santillan mistakingly received a heart-and-lung transplant from a donor with an incompatible blood type. She received a second transplant on February 20 when an anonymous family donated the organs, but she quickly developed complications. She died on February 22.
Richard Mintz, head of global public affairs for Burson, said his agency had an existing relationship with Duke through its practice tailored to these types of crises, the Higher Education Economic Health Center (HEEHC).
Headed by Marsha Tanner Wilson, the group has also done work for teaching hospitals such as John Hopkins and Stanford University.
Burson received a request for help from Duke approximately one week before the second transplant. Wilson led a team to North Carolina shortly thereafter to handle the media attention from the hospital itself.
"The challenge here is to make sure that the medical center communicates effectively to all the key stakeholders, meaning existing staff, the community, the policy holders, and patient groups," explained Mintz. "It's important to explain what took place, and understand it so it doesn't happen again."
Duke quickly put out a statement accepting blame for the mistake, and then announced the adoption of new transplant procedures designed to prevent a repeat of the situation. Three members of a patient's transplant team will now be required to verbally verify the compatibility of blood types between donors and recipients. The new standards were used during Santillan's second operation.
"We believe that the changes we have put in place enhance the safety of the procurement process, and should be considered as a national guideline," Dr. William J. Fulkerson, chief executive of Duke University Hospital, wrote in a letter.
The incident is already reverberating in Washington, where President Bush is pushing for a $250,000 cap in "pain and suffering" malpractice suits. Advocates on both sides of the issue acknowledged last week that the media attention would influence the debate.
Advocacy groups fighting the legislation have seized on Santillan's case. The Association of Trial Lawyers of America was planning to bring the family's lawyer, Kurt Dixon, to testify on Capitol Hill late last week.
Dixon wrote a letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee expressing his desire to testify. "America deserves to understand how people like Jesica and her family would be affected by the legislation your committee is considering."
Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-TN), a proponent of the cap, warned against letting Santillan's case impact the debate. But Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) retorted, "This tragedy at Duke is going to be front and center in the evidence of why we have to take medical-malpractice reform very seriously."