Friday, November 16, 2012

"Why Do We Always Need to Blame Somebody?" - An Investment Banker Pushes Back Against Health Care Leadership Accountability

One of the many dramatic stories generated by the destructive Hurricane Sandy illustrated, oddly enough, the influence of big finance on American academic medicine.

Vivid video showed patients being carried down darkened stairways after flooding and a power failure at Langone Medical Center in New York (for example, see this CNN story.)  Amazingly, all the patients survived, thanks to heroic work by health care professionals and first responders.  CNN noted, "Some 1,000 staff members -- doctors, nurses, residents and medical students -- along with firefighters and police officers evacuated the patients."

The medical center suffered significant damage beyond that caused by the blackout.  A New York Times story about the problems was entitled, "A Flooded Mess that was a Medical Gem."  It noted the hospital's basement flooding destroyed major equipment like MRI machines, a linear accelerator and a gamma knife.  An animal research facility was destroyed and most of the animals died.  A renovated lecture hall and the library were ruined.

What Went Wrong?

However, soon after the debate began about why the hospital flooded and power failed.  A Bloomberg story stated,  

New York University Langone Medical Center, the 705-bed hospital in lower Manhattan that assured city officials it was ready for Hurricane Sandy, stood dark and empty a day after the storm rolled through.

That story raised questions whether hospital leadership gave adequate priority to infrastructure like generators, or put too much emphasis on spending likely to produce more rapid rewards.

Blame is being placed on the building’s outdated backup power system, which has raised concern that aging infrastructure at U.S. hospitals has created a risk for similar outages that jeopardize patient care.

'Hospitals are careful to get the latest and greatest medical equipment, but then they don’t spend on the infrastructure,' Michael Orlowicz, a principal at consulting company Lawrence Associates LLC, said....

A story on ProPublica (available on Salon) noted,

Experts say such failures are troubling but not entirely surprising. Dr. Arthur Kellermann founded the emergency department at Emory University and headed it from 1999 to 2007. Now, he’s Paul O’Neill-Alcoa Chair in Policy Analysis at RAND Corporation think tank.

The other night, as the NYU evacuation was unfolding, he tweeted, 'Hospital preparedness and well-functioning backup systems are a costly distraction from daily business, until they are needed. Like now.'

In an email interview with ProPublica, Kellermann elaborated: 'I have no doubt when the hospital assured the Mayor that their backup systems were ready, they believed they were. They were wrong. What I find most remarkable about this story is that [more than seven] years after Hurricane Katrina, major hospitals still have critical backup systems like generators in basements that are prone to flooding.'

Similarly, a Reuters story included another quote from Dr Kellermann,

'I've been asking hospitals to look at their own survivability' after a natural or manmade disaster, 'and I just can't get it on their radar screens,' said Dr. Art Kellerman,...
It added,

For hospital administrators trying to keep their institutions in the black, disaster-resistant infrastructure is expensive and lacks the sex appeal of robotic surgery suites and proton-beam cancer therapy to attract patients.

'People don't pick hospitals based on which one has the best generator,' Kellerman said. 

The notion that hospital leaders may put short-term revenue ahead of long-term infrastructure development, even when such development might be critical for patient safety, should not surprise Health Care Renewal readers.  Hospitals are often lead or influenced by those who believe maximizing short-term revenue should be the main goal of all management, an over-generalization of the idea promoted in business schools for a generation that business leaders should maximize "shareholder value," which has come to be defined as short-term stock price (see this post).

  Who Defended the Disaster Planning

 In response to this or anticipated criticism, leaders of Langone Medical Center deployed.  Not unexpectedly, one was Richard Cohen, the vice president for facilities, as reported by ProPublica, via the Huffington Post,  
After Hurricane Irene, officials at NYU Langone Medical Center spent several million dollars protecting its backup power system from flooding, according to Richard Cohen, vice president of facilities operations.

The hospital removed a fuel tank and a set of emergency generators at street level and chose to depend on what Cohen termed an 'extremely modern, extremely reliable' system of rooftop generators.

The hospital also built a new, flood-resistant house for pumps that draw fuel from the hospital's sealed underground tank and feed it to the generators that make electricity when New York City's power fails.

One vulnerability remained, and it proved to be the system's Achilles Heel. A portion of the hospital's power distribution circuits, which direct the generated electricity out into various areas of the hospital, were located in the hospital's basement.

'It's like what happens when you have a flood in your basement and the electrical panel is in your basement,' Cohen said.

Oops.  Why a crucial component of the system meant to protect the back up power system from threats including flooding was placed in an area at risk from flooding was not clear.   Only one story I could find (in the NY Times) included a response by the Dean of the Medical School and CEO of the Medical Center Dr Robert I Grossman.

At this point, Dr. Grossman said, he could only theorize as to why the generators had shut down. All but one generator is on a high floor, but the fuel tanks are in the basement. The flood, he said, was registered by the liquid sensors on the tanks, which then did what they were supposed to do in the event, for instance, of an oil leak. They shut down the fuel to the generators.

Oops again.  Why an effort to flood proof the hospital included an undeground fuel tank which could not be operated if water got near it was also not clear. 

The most voluble defender of the hospital's management proved to be one Mr Kenneth Langone.  As noted in a blog post in the Wall Street Journal, Mr Langone is the medical center's "board chair and benefactor."  In fact, as the NY Times reported in 2008,

Kenneth G Langone, a billionaire financier and founder of Home Depot, is giving another $100 million donation to New York University Medical Center, matching the one he made anonymously in 1999. 

In return, the university plans to name the medical center the N.Y.U. Langone Medical Center,....

The WSJ blog post asserted,

Langone said the hospital 'frequently' tested its generators and they had passed the tests, and the hospital was prepared for a 12-foot storm surge. 'We anticipated 12-foot surges, which we knew we could handle. We got 14-foot surges,' he said.

Some of the hospital generators were in the basement, which flooded. Langone acknowledged that the generators were 'not in the right location,' but that was an artifact of aging facilities undergoing an extensive upgrade. 'They’ve been there for years,' he said of the generators in the basement. As part of a $3.2 billion modernization, NYU Langone was planning on buying new generators and locating them in better locations than the basement, Langone said.

Oops one more time.  Mr Langone seemed to only offer inertia as an excuse for why some generators remained in the basement after an effort to flood proof the back up electrical system.
Langone was quoted in the CNN story mentioned above,

Kenneth Langone, the chairman of the hospital's board of trustees who also happened to be a patient there until he was discharged Tuesday morning, said that regulations require the generators to be tested regularly and that they've worked every time.

Langone said the hospital is in the midst of an 'enormous' building campaign. The generators are going to be replaced in a renovation, he said.

In a Bloomberg story, Langone was quoted again,
'We believed the machines would work, and we believed everything we were told about the scope and size of the storm,' Langone said.

 In that story, he tried to deflect attention from tha apparent infrastructure failure, and presumably the responsibility of the organization's leadership for it, to the efforts of health professionals,

'The backup generators failed, it’s that simple, but the story here is the magnificence of the effort of all of our people and what they did,' Langone, 77, said yesterday....

He also defended the relatively silent Dean and medical center CEO,

'What this dean has done is nothing short of spectacular, in every respect,' Langone said of Grossman. 'So last night God decides to give us a test and our machines failed.'

The story ended with yet another of his attempts to deflect attention to management's responsibility,

'Machines fail, airplanes take off in great shape and they have malfunctions,' Langone said. 'Why do we always need to blame somebody for something that could just have happened? Why not write a story about what people did because things happened? Let’s be a little positive once in a while.'

And in the WNYC News Blog, Langone appeared yet again with this apologia, 

He said hospital pumps failed, because they were overwhelmed by an event that was 'unprecedented' and 'an act of god.'

'The generators are on the seventh floor, and the fuel supply is in cement vaults in the basement, where they're supposed to be according to code,' Langone said. 'Moisture sensors shut down the pumps, but they did what they're supposed to do.'


Certainly the survival of all the former patients at Langone Medical Center due to brave efforts by health care professionals and first responders ought to be celebrated.  From the discussion so far, it is not clear whether the infrastructure failures were unavoidable due to the scope of a huge natural disaster, or whether the failures were the results of poor planning and insufficient attention to and investment in infrastructure.  Celebration of personal and professional dedication, however, ought not to distract from determining what lessons could be learned about making health care infrastructure safer in cases of natural disaster. 

It also ought not to distract from concerns about management accountability.  In this day and age, it is not surprising that no executive at Langone Medical Center would accept any responsibility for an effort to protect its electrical back-up power from flooding that included an underground fuel tank which would be shut down if any water affected it.  However, these executives are rewarded handsomely supposedly for their "spectacular" leadership.  (Dean Grossman received $1,744,780 in the 2010-2011 period according to the NYU Hospitals Center 2010 form 990.  That document listed four other executives who made over $1 million.)  One would think they would at least try to substantively address how their patients got put into such a precarious situation.

It is surprising that the silence from management was supplanted by the opinions of a very wealthy board chairman who paid hundreds of millions for some of the improvements to the hospital that were destroyed by the storm, but improvements that may not have included fully flood proofing the hospital's back up electrical system.  Why he may well be disappointed about the loss of what he spent so much to build, it is not clear why his opinions about technical aspects of disaster preparation should replace responses from those who were responsible for disaster preparedness.  After all, Mr Langone, while very wealthy, has no evident expertise in engineering, science, or anything pertaining to protecting infrastructure from natural disasters.  (Mr Langone's biography showed his background seems to be only in investment banking and finance.)  One wonders whether Mr Langone's prominence in the discussion suggests how influential the views of investment bankers, versus those of health care professionals, engineers and scientists, have become in the operation of health care systems.

Again, it appears that the culture of finance has intruded progressively into the cultures of health care and academics during an era in which finance has been increasingly irresponsible, as shown by the global financial collapse and our current economic woes.  Instead, true health care reform would develop leadership and governance that upholds health care professionals' values rather than worshiping short term revenue.


Anonymous said...

Excellent summary of the facts. I heard Langone on CNBC's Squawk Box pontificating excuses on the disaster while heaping well deserved accolades on his employees, who worked heroically to save the patients from the catastrophe of "bad luck" judgment of its well paid leaders.

There were no immediate deaths, but were there any delayed deaths from the delays in care that would have manifested impact days later.

Did anyone describe how the digitized medical records were transferred?

Just wondering if Grossman walked the steps in the dark.

Anonymous said...

This article is misleading.

NYC code requires fuel tanks to be located on the lowest level of a building.

Having thousands of gallons of fuel on an upper level is a danger in itself.

In fact, tanks must be underground unless large, specialized vaults are created.

Also, the cost to move electrical switchgear from the basement to upper floors, in an existing operating hospital would be astronomical... $500 million or more would not be an exageration.

I have worked at the medical center as a subcontractor on various occasions and they do not, in my estimation, sacrifice anything for the sake of financial reward.


Roy M. Poses MD said...

Anonymous of 29 November,

Which article do you claim is misleading, my whole blog post, or one of the news articles I quoted?

In any case, as best as I can tell, the location of the tanks underground was not so much of a problem as the susceptibility of the tank design to flooding, or perhaps the fault was in the design of the sensor which cut off the fuel flow when it was not clear that the fuel was contaminated?

I don't think there was anything in my blog post suggesting that fuel tanks should be put "on an upper level."

Also, I cannot tell if the problem was that all electrical switching equipment was not on an upper floor, or that some of the electrical switching equipment was not somewhere other than a basement. It is not obvious that fixing the switch gear that was actually flooded would have cost $500 million.

You are entitled to your opinions, of course. They might be more convincing if we knew who there author is.