HOUSTON (CN) – A world-famous heart surgeon who has performed more than 1,000 transplants turned his metaphorical scalpel on an investigative report questioning the ethics of his research by filing a defamation lawsuit against ProPublica and Texas’ biggest newspaper.
Dr. O. Howard “Bud” Frazier sued ProPublica, the Houston Chronicle and one reporter from each outlet for defamation on Monday in Harris County District Court after they published a lengthy and critical news report about Frazier’s research practices and alleged conflicts of interest.
The article, titled “A Pioneering Heart Surgeon’s Secret History of Research Violations, Conflicts of Interest and Poor Outcomes,” was published on May 24.
Frazier, represented by David Berg with Berg & Androphy in Houston, is currently the co-director of cardiovascular surgery research with the Texas Heart Institute and practices with the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The heart institute described Frazier as a “living legend” who has performed more than 1,200 heart transplants and made significant innovations in mechanical circulatory support, such as artificial hearts.
“As a result of his work, he became one of the top transplantation and mechanical circulatory support surgeons in the world,” according to Frazier’s biography page on the institute’s website.
However, the two publications reported that they uncovered records during his tenure at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital – now Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center – that portrayed unethical means to reach the ends of his research.
According to the report, the surgeon committed numerous violations, including the implantation of “experimental heart pumps in patients who did not meet medical criteria to be included in clinical trials,” and favored experimental treatments above “proven” methods. The news article says Frazier also failed to disclose certain consulting fees and research grants and allowed unlicensed researchers to treat his patients.
Additionally, the ProPublica and Chronicle report indicated that half of the surgeon’s Medicare patients died within a year after being implanted with a heart-assist device from Frazier from 2010 to 2015, which is double the national mortality rate for those types of patients, the lawsuit states.
Frazier categorically denied any wrongdoing during a phone interview with the publications’ reporters, which was noted in the article.
Instead, Frazier said that “his patients were sicker and higher risk than those treated at other hospitals,” according to the article.
Frazier’s lawsuit – which also names reporters Michael Hixenbaugh and Charles Ornstein as defendants – asserts that the Medicare patient data in the news article is a misrepresentation of the quality of his work.
“Hixenbaugh and Ornstein did not utilize the generally accepted statistical method for determining the mortality rate,” the complaint states. “Instead, they took Medicare’s raw mortality rate and invented their own methodology for calculating Dr. Frazier’s mortality rate.”
Frazier also references a subsequent list of letters published by the Chronicle on June 3, just over a week after the investigative article was published.
St. Luke’s chief of staff William Granberry said in his published letter that “St. Luke’s is the hospital that heart failure patients can come to when all else fails,” an apparent criticism of the Medicare mortality rate analysis in the May 24 article.
Frazier claims the report did not include a “risk adjusted” qualifier in the analysis, which he says skews the data unfavorably against him.
The surgeon alleges the ProPublica and Chronicle reporters “omitted facts and relied on unsubstantiated allegations” and used data that was not credible in the context in which it was portrayed.
“Despite acknowledging the flaw, the defendants doubled down in [a] second article with this self-effacing conclusion: ‘We stand by our reporting and have found no instances of errors,'” according to the complaint.
The second article was published on June 29, refuting arguments made by Frazier, the Texas Heart Institute and other medical professionals.
In the second article, Ornstein and Hixenbaugh included internal review documents from St. Luke’s that tried to bolster claims from the first article after the reporters received letters from researchers associated with Frazier’s work challenging their assertions.
Three doctors who wrote one of the letters were researchers in the HeartMate II clinical trial to test left ventricular assist devices, or LVADs, which are referenced in the investigative report.
In the letter, the doctors said the reporters did not have access to documents regarding patients fit for clinical trials.
In response, Ornstein and Hixenbaugh said in the second article that the “findings of research violations in Frazier’s LVAD program reported in our story stemmed from an internal review by top officials at his hospital.”
Frazier says in his complaint that he has dedicated his life to saving the lives of others, while Ornstein and Hixenbaugh “have, in this instance, dedicated their lives to destroying someone else’s.”
“Dr. Frazier was dealing every day with the sickest of the sick, whose outcomes from the beginning were never assured, whose death, to the attending physicians and surgeons, seemed assured,” the lawsuit states. “Heart surgery is a risky business; experimental heart surgery is even riskier.”
Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, said in a phone interview Tuesday that he stands by the investigative report.
Tofel said that Frazier’s complaint, which ProPublica has seen but has not yet been served with, lacks merit and that the publications would defend against the lawsuit vigorously.
The Chronicle did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Frazier’s attorney, Berg, declined to give a direct statement on the complaint, but instead said that he wanted to let the lawsuit speak for itself, as it has detailed explanations refuting claims made in the report.
The surgeon seeks punitive damages for claims of defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.