CONCORD, N.H. - The brother of a New Hampshire woman who died in 2014 after heart surgery at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester told a legislative committee Monday that she wouldn’t have gone through with the operation had she known that the hospital had recently disciplined her surgeon for professional misconduct.
In impassioned remarks during the first meeting of a subcommittee investigating the Board of Medicine, Sean McGorry said his sister, Joan Dimick, had no idea that Dr. Yvon Baribeau had been suspended the previous year for nearly a month. Nor did she know that the cardiothoracic surgeon had a “conditional” appointment at the time of her operation for failing to return to the operating room after another surgery to treat a bleeding patient.
Baribeau’s online physician profile looked pristine because, in contrast to the medical boards of many other states, New Hampshire regulators don’t make public hospital disciplinary actions, malpractice settlements, and criminal convictions. The surgeon, who retired in 2019, had a total of 21 malpractice settlements over his career.
“To me, the Board of Medicine [and] Catholic Medical Center failed my sister,” said McGorry, 55, a general manager of a heating and air-conditioning company. “We don’t have transparency in the state of New Hampshire.”
To a Globe reporter before the hearing, he added: “I have more protection buying a used car than I do picking a surgeon.”
The legislative subcommittee launched its probe after a Boston Globe Spotlight Team series last month revealed that Baribeau had racked up one of the worst surgical malpractice records in the country. The Globe report also found that CMC administrators did little to address repeated warnings by employees, and the state medical board’s website suggested he was a flawless doctor.
The panel, appointed by the oversight committee of the Department of Health and Human Services, is charged with examining the operations of the New Hampshire Board of Medicine, as well as whether it should begin to make public more information about physicians.
The Globe investigation also found New Hampshire’s medical board is among the least transparent in the country. In addition, Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group, found that the board had the lowest rate of serious disciplinary actions against doctors of any state between 2017 and 2019.
It remains unclear how much state regulators probed Baribeau while he was practicing, as they have declined to comment, citing confidentiality.
Hospital executives at CMC have faced fierce criticism for concealing problems involving Baribeau. The Globe series disclosed that Baribeau’s 21 settlements included 14 in which he was alleged to have contributed to a patient’s death. His earliest settlement occurred in 1998. The agreements had provisions requiring that they be kept secret.
After the Globe stories were published, leaders of CMC told employees on Sept. 14 that they would hire a firm to launch an independent review of how the hospital oversees medical care, though gave few details on how it would ensure independence or did not provide a timetable. When asked Monday, CMC officials said they have yet to hire a firm.
Baribeau’s physician profile on the medical board website in Massachusetts, where he was also licensed, couldn’t be more different than his profile in New Hampshire. It lists 20 of his malpractice settlements due to a state requirement that such information be made public.
Representative Mark Pearson, the chairman of the Oversight Committee and a member of the subcommittee, initially accused CMC of a “coverup” and vowed to launch an investigation into the failures to stop him earlier, including the role of the Board of Medicine.
But at Monday’s two-hour meeting, Pearson and some members of the subcommittee also expressed concern about giving the board more power to investigate doctors and share more information with the public, at least at this point.
In his opening remarks, Pearson said that he was married to a family physician and that sometimes insurers for doctors settle “frivolous” claims because it’s cheaper to do that than litigate them. He said it would be good if the board had a “mechanism of reporting” egregious malpractice claims to the public without tarnishing the reputation of doctors who settle those with little or no merit.
The Globe found that some state medical boards that publicly post malpractice settlements do attempt to put the information in a broader context. That includes whether the settlement amount is below average, average, or above average for physicians in that specialty.
Another subcommittee member, Representative Jesse Edwards, said lawmakers needed to determine if there was indeed a problem in the state. He said he didn’t want the legislature to make changes to the board “if there’s not a problem beyond perception.”
A handful of witnesses addressed the subcommittee, but many of their comments raised more questions than they answered.
Dr. Emily Baker, an obstetrician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and president of the board, asserted that regulators investigate all complaints brought to the board.
“We do take it seriously,” she said, but she also disclosed that the board has not met since the Globe series was published.
Although the board in New Hampshire, like those in other states, has access to the federal National Practitioner Data Bank, which lists all settlements paid by physicians across the country, Baker indicated that she was surprised to learn about the number of Baribeau’s settlements.
“If you don’t see something we can’t act on it, we can’t evaluate it,” she said. “We did not see the 20 of 21 things on the Board of Registration in Medicine in Mass. ... That was not a piece of information that we had that we could act on.”
Dr. David Conway, an obstetrician-gynecologist who preceded Baker as board president and now serves as a physician investigator for the board, said he was also surprised by the Globe’s stories. When he read them, he said, it caused him “considerable upset.” He said it reminded him of the infamous case of Christopher Duntsch, a Texas neurosurgeon who maimed numerous patients and was the subject of a popular podcast, “Dr. Death.”
Conway seemed to blame others, including doctors at CMC, for failing to complain about Baribeau to the board. “If we don’t hear it at the board, we don’t know anything about it,” he said.
But Holly Haines, an attorney whose firm handled the last batch of settlements with Baribeau, told legislators that a fellow lawyer, Charles “Chuck” Douglas III, wrote the board in December 2018 on behalf of a former CMC doctor, saying that Baribeau was a danger to patients and should not be placed on the surgical schedule. Douglas got no response.
Haines told legislators that the state could strengthen the board simply with language saying that the board “shall” investigate allegations against doctors instead of saying the board “may” do that.
The legislative subcommittee plans to investigate the matter for three weeks and make recommendations to the Oversight Committee.