Famed Baylor St. Luke's surgeon sues Houston Chronicle, ProPublica for defamation

Prominent heart transplant surgeon O.H. "Bud" Frazier, MD, of Houston-based Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, filed a lawsuit against ProPublica and the Houston Chronicle July 9, alleging the publications' reporting amounted to defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Here are seven things to know about the lawsuit:

1. The suit was filed in the Harris County District Court and names the two publications, as well as the authors of the articles in question: Charles Ornstein, a senior editor at ProPublica, and Michael Hixenbaugh, an investigative reporter at the Houston Chronicle.

2. Dr. Frazier is a well-known heart transplant surgeon who has completed approximately 1,200 heart transplants and created what is known as the "Left Ventricular Assist Device," an implant that aids the heart in pumping blood. This device has been implanted in tens of thousands of patients, according to the lawsuit.

3. The lawsuit alleges Mr. Ornstein and Mr. Hixenbaugh used unreliable sources, omitted facts, made false and misleading statements, and "accused Dr. Frazier of inhumanely experimenting on patients; hiding the harmful effects of the LVAD; letting 'pay offs' influence his medical decisions; and allowing a researcher, who was an unlicensed doctor to treat patients." The suit alleges the reports falsely portray Dr. Frazier, harmed his career and reputation, and have caused "extreme emotional pain and mental anguish."

4. The publications jointly published a report in May that found Baylor St. Luke's had accused Dr. Frazier of violating research rules and avoiding ethical guidelines when his team implanted heart pumps into patients who didn't meet the criteria for clinical trials. St. Luke's reported the findings to the government and reimbursed Medicare millions of dollars, according to the Houston Chronicle.

5. The suit also criticizes the findings of the St. Luke's investigation. The hospital provided the following statement in response to the lawsuit: "Dr. Frazier is a distinguished surgeon who has served Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center, our patients and the community for decades. We are grateful for his leadership in building the heart transplant program and for his skill and experience that has saved many lives."

6. ProPublica and the Houston Chronicle also reported the high transplant volume in Baylor St. Luke's heart program had resulted in deaths and unusual complications. The hospital suspended its transplant program for two weeks to investigate the deaths, but federal officials said not enough has been done to address the potential issues. Medicare notified the hospital June 25 it plans to terminate its funding Aug. 17.

7. ProPublica and the Houston Chronicle have already faced significant backlash from their reporting, receiving letters from nearly 50 physicians, researchers, patients and others calling the reporting false. The publications stood by their reporting after the pushback and continue to do so in the face of the lawsuit. "We think the lawsuit lacks merit, and we intend to defend it vigorously," Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, was quoted in the Houston Chronicle.

Nancy Barnes, Houston Chronicle's executive vice president and editor, said, "The Houston Chronicle stands behind the reporters on this story, and our journalism, and we will defend our work vigorously."

Editor's note: This article was updated July 11, 2018 at 1:25 p.m. CT to include the statement from Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center. 

 

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