Corruption within the medical industry has been seen coming up in a crescendo and it is only a matter of time that will make it reach its loudest. The US is already engulfed in such corruption where medical institutions and pharmaceutical companies are keeping their profits ahead of actual medical needs. With the coming up of many private hospitals in the city, we are not very far from this crises as well.
Here is a story of Dr Steve Ortiz, a spinal surgeon from Florida, who was known by his colleagues and patients as a man who always wore a smile on his face. But under the smile he also was battling a system he was against but had to be a part of. Dr Ortiz was not of the kind to give up on his patients, he instead was known to take the extra step forward to give his patients the best treatment he could possibly give them. Susan Kreischer was a patient of Dr Ortiz and was undergoing treatment for her back problems. She said, “When I had more back problems, Dr Ortiz said I’d need my hip fused and that he’d look for another surgeon since that wasn’t a procedure he was familiar with. Next time I saw him he told me that he didn’t find anyone he could trust so he was going to do it himself - and that’s exactly what he did. He learned that procedure for me! I was in awe that he did that for me.” The operating room was also in awe of his achievement.
He was known to be a person whose actions spoke louder than his words. There was an instance when the parking lot of his hospital in the basement had a pothole that gave everyone who went over it a harsh bump. He had spoken to the hospital management about it and was ignored. So he one day went to the local grocery store, took a bag of cement and got the pot hole leveled.
It should not be a surprise that such a doctor was fighting an internal battle with corrupt doctors in his hospital. Allegedly, Dr Ortiz had irreconcilable differences with the hospital leadership and was even considering moving on to another practice.
According to hospital staff, everything changed on February 7, 2017 when Dr Ortiz received a phone call in the doctors’ lounge. Staff said he was white as a ghost and believed that he must have been “threatened or something”. To this day, nobody knows what happened on that phone call.
Dr Ortiz texted his surgical nurse, Sherry Cleveland, asking for her personal email address. That evening around 5:00pm was the last time Dr Ortiz called his mother and told her, “They are greedy, that’s all they care about.”
His mother said that she was never aware of the challenges and struggles he had faced, prior to his phone calls.
The next day one of his colleagues Sherry Cleveland and friends woke up to a mail from him reading, “Sorry to leave this up to you, but wanted to say goodbye and thank you to everyone at the hospital, and I am asking you to say goodbye for me. I really enjoyed working with everyone, and truly appreciated everyone’s hard work and dedication to my patients. I have some decent offers to stay in the area, but just cannot muster up the energy to change practices again. Because of my recruitment agreement, I have to stay in the area until Nov, 2018. If I stay, I won’t get referrals from docs and the practice will continue to struggle.
I left my last practice because the surgeons there were doing unnecessary surgery, and now I have landed in a place where I am coerced to withhold care from patients. Just can’t win I guess. So, after all that, I have decided to check out.
Was great working with you, always enjoyed your sense of humour and of course appreciated how well you took care of my patients.”
Dr Ortiz was not one who could play the game of the corrupt when asked to look at profits before patient. He went up to many of his higher ups and even went to the board of the hospital, who asked him to ‘go with the flow’. In frustration, Dr Ortiz had even reached out to government officials and the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), from whom he never received any response. After exploring all the possible options and arriving at a dead end, he saw no solution in sight. He decided to rather commit suicide than play the game by someone else’s rules. According to his colleagues and family, he was a truth teller and was biting his tongue just to survive. Dr Ortiz died as a whistle blower, feeling that suicide was the only way to draw attention to and bring an end to corruption.
“He was 47 when he finished his fellowship and was very naive having spent most of his life in school,” said his mother. “Steve was glad his training was over so he could be a real doctor. He felt alone in Florida. He had only been out of training for three years and was very disillusioned. He was not a quitter. He just could not deal with the corruption at his age.”
Journalists in the US have reported of his suicide, but no detailed investigation into his death has been done. Dr Ortiz is just one among thousands of doctors who are caught between for-profit insurers, unethical administrators and shareholders demanding maximum profit extraction from the sickest, most vulnerable patients.