BOSTON — It was one of several procedures Dr. Mikhail Higgins, MD, performed on December 14, 2018, at Boston Medical Center (BMC). The teenaged patient had developmental delays and a blood disorder called sickle cell disease. Dr. Higgins was asked to implant a double port in a major blood vessel in his neck. The double port would allow the patient’s blood to be replaced with fresh blood from a donor in a high exchange transfusion.
Dr. Higgins implanted a single port instead. According to allegations detailed in a federal lawsuit, he “mixed up this patient with another port insertion scheduled for that day.” The teen had to be taken back to the operating room for a second procedure under anesthesia.
“The referring pediatric team had specifically walked down to discuss the procedure to ensure that the correct port was available prior to the procedure,” the lawsuit states.
Dr. Higgins is a 40-year-old attending physician in BMC’s interventional radiology program. Interventional radiology is a growing field where specialists use scans and other imaging to perform targeted surgical procedures with needles, wires, and catheter tubes. The procedures are less invasive than open surgery.
Dr. Higgins has impressive credentials. His online profile lists a medical degree from Wake Forest University School of Medicine and a Master of Public Health from Yale. “His professional interests include patient safety and risk management” and he’s received numerous awards for excellence in medical and graduate school, according to the profile.
EMPLOYMENT LAWSUIT FILED
The lawsuit is not a malpractice case and Dr. Higgins is not a defendant. It’s an employment action filed by one of Dr. Higgin’s former colleagues. Dr. Susan O’Horo, MD, claims BMC diminished her responsibilities and questioned her motivations when she raised concerns about Dr. Higgins. Her complaint details dozens of instances where she concluded Dr. Higgins’s patients did not receive acceptable care.
Dr. O’Horo worked as an interventional radiologist at BMC in 2018 and 2019. In addition to performing procedures, she was Director of Quality and Safety of the interventional radiology program.
Her role was to monitor and report complications and adverse outcomes.
In an interview with investigative reporter Ted Daniel, Dr. O’Horo said, “Dr. Higgins had problems regardless of whether things were simple or complicated.”
“Instead of listening to her and following up on the issues she raised, BMC retaliated against her,” said Dr. O’Horo’s attorney, Lisa Arrowood.
According to her lawsuit:
In April 2018, Dr. Higgins allegedly perforated a portion of a patient’s small intestine during a biopsy when, “he should have biopsied the lymph node on the opposite side.”
In January 2019, Dr. Higgins placed a catheter instead of a drain in a patient. “The patient leaked caustic bile for several days causing skin erosion and pain.”
In October 2019, Dr. Higgins allegedly broke off a lidocaine needle during a procedure. “The patient required a subsequent surgery to retrieve the needle from his liver.”
In March 2019 Dr. Higgins allegedly missed an area of internal bleeding in a trauma patient who had been hit by a car. “The patient died the next morning, likely at least in part as a result of the missed angiogram finding,” Dr. O’Horo’s lawsuit alleges.
Depositions contained in the lawsuit confirm Dr. O’Horo wasn’t the only BMC employee to question Dr. Higgins’s technical abilities and clinical judgement. Another BMC physician was asked if Dr. Higgins had any nicknames at the hospital. She responded, “I understand that he was called the ‘Boston butcher,’” according to a transcript of her deposition. Dr. O’Horo has made the same troubling claim.
Case files obtained by 25 Investigates through public records requests reveal Dr. O’Horo went to 2 state agencies with complaints about BMC and Dr. Higgins in 2019.
In 2020, a Massachusetts Department of Health (DPH) investigation found BMC handled Dr. O’Horo’s concerns about Dr. Higgins appropriately, in part because the hospital reported placing him on probation. Dr. O’Horo’s claim that the hospital did not properly document and report adverse events was found to be unsubstantiated. No deficiencies were cited by DPH.
An investigation by the agency that licenses and regulates doctors is active. The Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine (BORM) has docketed a complaint against Dr. Higgins based on the care he provided 3 patients in 2018 and 2019. In one of the cases, he’s alleged to have “caused an injury” to a patient’s kidneys by closing off a vein that supplies blood. BORM has notified Dr. Higgins that his medical license could be sanctioned. A BORM spokesperson said the agency doesn’t comment on pending matters when 25 Investigates requested the status of the case.
BMC AND DOCTOR’S REPSONSE
Lawyers for Dr. Higgins in the BORM case declined to speak to 25 Investigates citing pending litigation. In their filings, Dr. Higgins denies the care he provided patients fell below acceptable standards. A spokesperson for BMC said Dr. Higgins is in good standing. 25 Investigates has confirmed, he continues to be scheduled to perform procedures at the hospital.
The hospital denies the allegations Dr. O’Horo has made in her lawsuit.
“Boston Medical Center does not tolerate any kind of discrimination or retaliation against an employee or medical staff member who raises a concern. BMC has refuted the allegations against the hospital as baseless in court,” a spokesperson said.
MISTAKES OR ROUTINE COMPLICATIONS?
Dr. Heidi Kummer, MD, is a critical care physician and the President of the Patient Advocate Certification Board. She said it’s rare for a doctor to criticize a colleague publicly.
“You don’t want to ruin somebody’s career, that’s always a concern. You want to be very careful about what you say,” she said.
25 Investigates asked Dr. Kummer how state regulators might distinguish normal complications from mistakes.
“You look at patterns, is there somebody who is taking way more patients back to the operating room for second procedures? Lawyers get involved and that really just prolongs the process,” she said, “some state boards are very much on top of this and very aggressive and say, we want to look at this and we want somebody to be suspended for the duration of the investigation.”
25 Investigates spoke with Dr. Higgins in person. He politely declined to provide any statements on the record and directed us to hospital attorneys. His BORM profile shows his license to practice medicine in Massachusetts is active and there’s no record of any malpractice payments or patient complaints.
Dr. O’Horo left BMC in 2020. She continues to practice interventional radiology for a different healthcare provider.
“For me to have stepped outside of the hospital’s leadership - it was an extreme move, but one that I felt needed to be done because it was so problematic,” she said.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.
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