The N.H. surgeon who had the worst record for malpractice death settlements in the nation
A prominent cardiac surgeon in New Hampshire has been connected to a string of deaths and injuries over the past two decades.
An investigation published by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team last week on Dr. Yvon Baribeau revealed the surgeon had 21 malpractice settlements regarding patient deaths and injuries over his 25 years at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester. That’s the worst record in the nation in the past two decades. Yet data posted publicly by the New Hampshire Board of Medicine never reflected that.
The Globe’s investigation found a pattern of Baribeau’s colleagues speaking out, both to CMC administration and the Catholic church about their concerns, but little action was taken to discipline him. CMC routinely used Baribeau’s image on advertisements and touted his skills.
Without Baribeau’s record posted publicly, many patients didn’t know about his settlements and the majority of the families who settled with him were also pushed to sign non-disclosure agreements, meaning they couldn’t speak out about what happened.
Since the story was published, CMC initially categorically denied the allegations and said the story was one-sided. Days later, The Globe reported officials at CMC said they will launch a full review of the hospital's oversight of medical care. A New Hampshire state lawmaker has also vowed to launch an investigation into why state regulators and other officials did not do more to intervene.
All Things Considered host Julia Furukawa spoke with one of the reporters on the Spotlight team, Liz Kowalczyk, about the story and how New Hampshire’s medical accountability system kept patients in the dark. Below is a transcript of their conversation.
Julia Furukawa: So, Liz, for our listeners who have not read the series yet from the Spotlight team, can you tell us: Who was Dr. Yvon Baribeau? CMC executives marketed him to the public as a very talented and innovative cardiac surgeon.
Liz Kowalczyk: Dr. Baribeau was a cardiac surgeon at Catholic Medical Center for a quarter of a century. He was one of their top revenue generators and a very, very busy cardiothoracic surgeon there at the hospital. He worked there until he retired, which was in 2019.
Julia Furukawa: Liz, as the years went by, Baribeau's record took a turn for the worse. And your team at The Globe found Baribeau had actually the worst record in the nation when it comes to malpractice settlements involving surgical deaths in the last two decades. And yet, data posted publicly by the New Hampshire Board of Medicine never reflected that. Is there something about New Hampshire's medical system that allowed that to happen?
Liz Kowalczyk: Well, there are a couple of things going on here. First of all, in terms of what the board makes publicly available and what it does not make publicly available, that is a New Hampshire-specific decision. The officials in New Hampshire have decided, at least until this point, that they are not going to make physicians malpractice settlements public, unlike in Massachusetts. So if Dr. Baribeau had practiced just over the line in Massachusetts, they make malpractice settlements as well as hospital disciplinary actions public on their website. So that does mean that in New Hampshire, patients and families are more in the dark.
Julia Furukawa: Dr. Baribeau was involved in 21 malpractice settlements related to surgical deaths or injuries. Can you contextualize that for us?
Liz Kowalczyk: I've been covering medicine for many, many years and was doing so before I became a member of the Spotlight team. And I just can't stress how unusual that is. I have just never come across a physician with that many malpractice settlements. The hospital, at one point, was sort of claiming that his record wasn't that unusual. But I went and I decided to see if that was true or not. And I looked at 125 cardiothoracic surgeons in Massachusetts and what their malpractice settlement record was. And I found 12 with malpractice settlements and no one had more than two settlements.
Julia Furukawa: The story also reveals a pattern of Baribeau's colleagues at Catholic Medical Center raising concerns with the hospital administration and the church, but to no avail. The hospital frequently touted his skills and used him on advertising materials. But did you get a sense of why they didn't respond to other staff's concerns?
Liz Kowalczyk: It's hard to know, obviously, what exactly was going on in the minds of administrators. But I think that the colleagues who were trying to have Dr. Baribeau barred from the operating room felt that his services were just so lucrative that the hospital really valued them and valued them to the point where they may have been willing to give him too many chances. I mean, cardiothoracic surgery is one of the highest paying procedures a hospital can do. It often helps fund other areas of the hospital, other areas of care that are not so well reimbursed. Now, the hospital would disagree with this characterization, though. I mean, they feel that they did discipline him early on and demand improvements in how he treated patients and that he did improve and that when they looked into later complaints, there wasn't anything to it and that these doctors were out to get him.
Julia Furukawa: Your investigation found that almost all of the settlements made with Dr. Baribeau following a patient death involved non-disclosure agreements. The families weren't allowed to speak publicly about their experience after settling. How common is this and what ripple effects can it have?
Liz Kowalczyk: Yes, it's very common and I think it's a problem, a big problem. I think it's one of the things that contributes to secrecy around medical errors. Most plaintiffs law firms who are representing patients and families will agree to these nondisclosure agreements because often the families just want to get this done. They want to settle. The law firms are also money on the line. They get a portion of that settlement. But there are some law firms who do resist this. But I think that this is a problem, and it certainly was a challenge in our reporting because there were a lot of families that wanted to talk about what happened, but they were bound by these non-disclosure agreements and non-disparagement agreements. And that really limited in fact, it basically prohibited them from talking to us. And so we had to get our information other ways.
Julia Furukawa: How do we find accountability in a situation like this?
Liz Kowalczyk: Well, I think now, it's up to regulators, right? The legislature, whether it decides to open its own inquiry into how Catholic Medical Center handled this situation. I think the Board of Medicine and whether it decides to relook at any of these cases, although the board itself is under fire for its lack of transparency around this doctor. But I think those are the main players, I think that could decide whether to look more deeply and to hold the administration accountable for what happened there.
Editor’s note: Catholic Medical Center is a NHPR underwriter. NHPR covers them just like any other institution.