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Suit Alleges Discrimination, Poor Care At Santa Clara Valley Med Center

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Santa Clara Valley Medical Center

Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose. (CBS)

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SAN JOSE (BCN) – Two cardiologists and a medical administrative assistant have filed a lawsuit against Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and other doctors alleging discrimination and retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and substandard care, according to a lawsuit filed Friday.

The 73-page document names the hospital, Santa Clara County—which owns, funds and hires personnel for the medical center—and four doctors, including the head of cardiology, as defendants.

The numerous complaints include accusations of sexism and the assertion that two patients died as a result of substandard patient care.

Thressa Walker, an administrative assistant in the cardiology department, filed a complaint with the Joint Commission of Accreditation Health Organization in February 2009 stating that a man who was in “fragile health condition” and had a family history of heart attacks underwent a stress test against the advice of Dr. Geeta Singh, a cardiologist and plaintiff in the case. The man suffered cardiac arrest during the test and died.

Less than a month later, an 80-year-old man with a history of coronary artery bypass surgery complained of chest pains and shortness of breath in the emergency room. According to the lawsuit, the patient had a series of heart attacks that went undiagnosed and later died in the Coronary Care Unit.

Both internal and external investigations have been conducted.

“These medical providers felt a moral obligation—after exhausting all other remedies—to get the hospital to change,” said Charles Bonner, an attorney for the plaintiffs. The third plaintiff is Dr. Kai Ihnken, chief of cardiothoracic surgery.

The three employees brought the suit against Dr. Hollister Brewster, chief of cardiology, Dr. Alfonso Banuelos, chief medical officer, Dr. Peter Gregor, a cardiologist, and Medical Director Dolly Goel.

“We are still in the process of reviewing the allegations in the complaint,” Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith said in a statement.

Smith, who holds a J.D. and a medical degree, said he is disappointed that the trio has chosen to file a lawsuit.

“Allegations regarding compromised patient care have been investigated and have not revealed evidence of improper care,” he said.

Gwen Mitchell, public affairs director for the county, said preliminary results from a Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations investigation found that there was no evidence of substandard patient care and no basis for the claims.

“Our legal staff is going through (the complaint) to make sure every issue has been examined,” Mitchell said.

The lawsuit alleges that Brewster “frequently and routinely” made explicit sexual jokes in front of staff members, which created an “intimidating and hostile work environment,” especially for female employees.

The plaintiffs said that when they complained, they were retaliated against by having patient care requests denied and being embarrassed in company e-mails, including accusations of neglecting job duties.

Additionally, Singh claims she was not paid a comparable salary to her male counterparts.

Ihnken, who has worked at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center since July 2006 through a contract with Stanford University, was called a “bad surgeon,” and his contract, set to expire on June 30, 2011, will not be renewed.

Mitchell, the county spokeswoman, said Ihnken’s contract was not renewed due to budget concerns.

“A number of modifications are being made in the county as we tighten our belts,” she said.

Bonner, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said his clients want “a change in management in the cardiology department and an elevated standard of care.”

He also said the plaintiffs would like the retaliation to end and for Ihnken to be reinstated. Ultimately, the plaintiffs would like to continue working at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.

Bonner said other medical center employees—a mix of males and females, doctors and staff—have contacted him with similar complaints and are considering joining the plaintiffs in the suit.

(© 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Bay City News contributed to this report.)

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