By Dave Schwab
The number of women suing Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa in a class-action lawsuit alleging hidden cameras secretly filmed them while they were undergoing surgical procedures has grown from 81 to 231 plaintiffs.
Sharp Grossmont claims the women were filmed inadvertently during an investigation from July 17, 2012 to June 30, 2013 into the alleged theft of an anesthesia drug, propofol, which was in short supply then.
The former chief of anesthesia for Sharp Grossmont Hospital, Dr. Patrick Sullivan, 54, is corroborating the plaintiff’s accusations. Sullivan is also suing Sharp Grossmont, claiming he was forced to resign by the hospital administration following his whistleblowing over the unauthorized tapings.
Noting the hospital is “unable to provide further comment on this active legal matter,” Sharp HealthCare vice president of public relations and communication, John Cihomsky, released a hospital letter sent April 4 to the community addressing plaintiffs’ allegations.
“Given the number of reports that have come out recently and the variations among them, we wanted to explain the situation to you directly,” said the letter signed by Chris Howard, president/CEO of Sharp HealthCare. “In 2012, we were alerted that, beginning in 2011, potentially powerful drugs and equipment were missing from the anesthesia cart in each of Sharp Grossmont Hospital’s three Women’s Center operating rooms. Our initial efforts to determine the cause of the missing drugs through interviews and other investigative methods were unsuccessful. We then installed a computer monitor with a motion-activated camera in each of the three Women’s Center operating rooms. Although the cameras were intended to record only individuals in front of the anesthesia carts, others, including patients and medical personnel in the operating rooms, were at times visible to the cameras and recorded without sound.”
Added Howard in his letter, “The purpose of this investigation was to determine how the anesthesia drugs were going missing in order to ensure patient safety and quality of care. …The surveillance methods in the 2012-13 investigation were used for that particular case only, and have not been used again. Sharp HealthCare and Sharp Grossmont Hospital continue to take extensive measures to protect the privacy of our patients. The videos in our possession are kept in a secured safe in our security department. We have provided copies of videos to third parties in response to legal processes or specific patient authorizations or requests. … We sincerely apologize that our efforts may have caused any distress to the women who were recorded, their families, and others we serve. We can assure you this surveillance method is no longer in use, and we have made changes in our protocols to ensure this situation is not repeated.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney Allison H. Goddard of Patterson Law Group of San Diego said her clients are alleging privacy violations and suing for damages from emotional distress.
“We don’t have a number,” said Goddard. “It will be up to the jury to decide.”
Goddard noted the hospital’s letter “was an apology to the community — not the women who were affected. The apology strike us as being insincere given the position they (Sharp) have taken in court.”
Goddard said patients first learned of the secret hospital recordings after their images were released as part of a 2016 Medical Board of California proceeding involving the doctor accused of allegedly stealing from the hospital’s carts.
Former Sharp anesthesia chief Patrick Sullivan, M.D., disputes Sharp’s version of events surrounding the unauthorized taping of female patients.
“Not only did Sharp betray the trust of the patients at Grossmont Hospital, the people of East San Diego County and the people of California and the United States who were rightfully outraged by Sharp’s wanton disregard for privacy and human decency, but Sharp ignored my concerns when I brought the filming to their attention,” said Sullivan. “They continued the filming for three more months, and served me up a nice plate of retaliation for my efforts. I and other anesthesiologists at the Sharp Grossmont Women’s Center had to resort to putting tape over the cameras to protect the patients’ privacy.”
Added Sullivan, “In addition, to add insult to injury, all of the approximately 21,000 video clips were reviewed by a male Sharp security employee. And Sharp has offered no proof that the cameras are not still there and still filming, or that they have indeed changed their videotaping policy as they have publicly stated.”
“They (Sharp) claim they were trying to identify the source, an employee, of the missing drugs, so they had hidden motion-detection cameras embedded in computer monitors on different carts in the emergency rooms,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Goddard. “The field of view of almost every video I’ve seen captured patients either walking into the room or being escorted out of the room. Many captured patients on the table being prepared for their (medical) procedures, or being cared for after.”
Goddard disputed Sharp’s claim that the taping of the women was unintended.
“There’s no way, seeing the range of the recordings in these videos … They had to have known what had happened,” Goddard said.
The plaintiffs’ attorney said estimates are that approximately 1,800 women were recorded undergoing medical procedures during the time period involved. “We don’t have access to all the 1,800,” Goddard said adding the 231 thus far named in the suit are only those who have come forward.
“The whole point of the lawsuit is to hold Sharp accountable, and send a message to Sharp — and every hospital in the United States — that this is not acceptable, hidden cameras in patient treatment areas,” Goddard said. “It’s such a personal issue. It still seems unbelievable to me. I can’t fathom that the hospital did this. The highest level of the hospital knew of it — and approved of it. They were kept informed at every step.”
Goddard added more plaintiffs could be added to the 231 already named in the lawsuit.
“I would love for every person who was affected by this to have their day in court,” she concluded.
— Reach Dave Schwab at firstname.lastname@example.org.