OP-ED: WellSpan doing the right thing for patients, community


In its Nov. 2 editorial about the open-heart surgery patients at WellSpan York Hospital who have developed a rare postoperative infection, The York Dispatch called on WellSpan Health to do right by these patients — and we couldn't agree more.

The safety, health and well-being of our patients and communities is our highest priority.

At WellSpan, we have never taken the public's trust in us for granted, and we fully recognize that trust is earned by doing the right thing. We know that every day there are people coming through our doors who are putting their lives, and those of their loved ones, in our hands — and we have never taken that responsibility lightly.

That is why we acted swiftly and responsibly — upon learning from a European study of a previously unknown pathway for rare bacterial infections in certain open-heart surgery cases — to assess the risk to patients and immediately notify state and federal health agencies.

And that is why we moved quickly and deliberately to notify patients who were infected or potentially exposed to this bacteria and to ensure they get all the information, care and treatment they need.

From the start, we have remained committed to honesty, transparency and accountability in our actions.

As soon as the situation became clear to us, we immediately contacted the Pennsylvania Department of Health and worked with them and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to investigate a possible association between the infections we were seeing in our patients and a specific medical device that is used in the operating room during certain open-heart surgeries.

While the CDC was conducting its exhaustive on-site review at WellSpan York Hospital, we performed a top-to-bottom review of our own maintenance procedures for this device. We have acknowledged that we found that our procedures were not perfectly aligned with those recommended by the manufacturer. In determining why this was the case, we have also identified some issues regarding how information pertaining to equipment maintenance is shared within our organization.

We learned that a bulletin, which contains information about possible issues with the machine, was received by WellSpan York Hospital via a third-party notification system to which the hospital subscribes. The fact that this information was not fully shared in our organization was an unacceptable lapse on our part, and it's one we deeply regret.

Let me be clear: These process missteps do not meet our high standards or our patients' expectations, and changes are already being made.

We also agree that regardless of the circumstances that preceded these discoveries, this is our problem to manage in a prompt and effective manner. While we have identified clear issues with some of our processes, we are always striving for continuous improvement in order to provide the high-quality health care this community deserves.

Since learning of this possible exposure to bacteria, WellSpan has been fully and firmly committed to doing the right thing for our patients and our communities. We have thoroughly addressed the known cause of the bacterial occurrence, and we are actively working to address the process issues that we've identified related to these events.

We have already committed to provide for the medical and emotional needs of those who are affected by this situation, at no cost to the patient.

We established a 24-hour nurse call center and a public website for patients, physicians and community members to access information quickly. Over the past two weeks, our nurses have fielded more than 600 calls, with the vast majority occurring in the first week.

There were some long wait times on the first couple of days, especially as our nurses took the time to answer all of the questions that our patients had. However, they have been able to handle the vast majority of patient calls in an efficient manner by taking down their contact information when call volumes have been heavy and returning those calls the same day in almost all cases.

Calls to the center have subsided over the past week, as patients have begun making their appointments with their primary care providers and seeking more personalized information. That's why we are transitioning that call center phone number, starting Wednesday, to a new resource.

Starting this week, a dedicated nurse navigator will work with our patients and their primary care physicians to connect them with the services, care and treatment they need. We will maintain this vital resource for as many years as our patients need it. And, we will recruit additional navigators, if necessary.

Although we worked quickly to communicate this information to patients and the community, we do regret the necessity of making a public announcement in parallel with our direct notification to patients. We fully appreciate the impact this might have had on affected patients and their families who may have learned about the situation from the media prior to receiving their notification letters.

However, we trust that members of the community understand that, in this age of instant communication, our obligation to inform the public and provide information needed to avoid widespread misunderstanding — or even panic — dictated this course of action. No one would have been well served if misinformation spread ahead of facts, and people wrongly believed they were at risk for this extremely rare bacterial infection.

WellSpan Health remains committed to communicating in a full and transparent manner about these issues, recognizing that this situation will continue to evolve as affected patients and their primary care physicians remain vigilant regarding the risk of infection.

To date, this infection has been identified in less than 1 percent of patients who had open-heart surgery at WellSpan York Hospital during this time period. However, we must accept the sobering reality that others who were potentially exposed to the bacteria could develop infections in the weeks and years ahead, especially patients with weakened immune systems or complex medical issues. That's why it is vitally important that these open-heart patients and their physicians remain vigilant in their watch for symptoms of this infection and that these patients receive the best care possible. It is our obligation and commitment to provide that care and treatment.

While it is still unknown whether other U.S. hospitals using similar equipment during open-heart surgery may also have patients with bacterial infection, we are committed to being transparent with colleagues across the country if our learnings may help to identify and address this potential risk to their patients.

We know the news of this potential risk of infection is concerning to our open-heart patients, and we profoundly regret any distress that it creates for them and their families. We remain deeply committed to ensuring our friends and neighbors have all of the information, care and treatment they need regarding this issue.

By doing what is right, we sincerely hope to maintain the trust of the community that we have been so privileged to serve for more than 130 years.

— Dr. Kevin H. Moser is president and chief executive officer of WellSpan Health.