$775k settlement for former UNMHSC breast cancer surgeon - Albuquerque Journal

$775k settlement for former UNMHSC breast cancer surgeon

Dr. Anne Marie Wallace was once a shining star at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center, touted as a highly skilled breast cancer specialist who offered “state-of-the-art” surgical techniques.

But a bitter legal battle erupted in 2011 after Wallace complained about what she called unethical care of patients and substandard surgical procedures by her supervisor, the chairman of the UNM Health Sciences Center surgery department.

She claimed in a whistleblower lawsuit that she was retaliated against and ultimately forced out.

UNMHSC officials denied the allegations and accused Wallace of not being a “team player.” They promised in 2011 to “use every means at our disposal to vigorously oppose the suit.”

WALLACE: Was called a "gem," "highly skilled"
WALLACE: Was called a “gem,” “highly skilled”

But newly unsealed records show that UNM Health Sciences Center officials settled the case last fall, agreeing to pay Wallace $775,000, including attorney fees. Wallace now works as a surgeon at a Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Cheyenne, Wyo.

The settlement agreement bars both sides from making public statements about the terms of the settlement, or the claims Wallace made, unless Wallace wants to discuss her allegations with prospective employers.

But questions remain about an external review HSC officials promised back in 2011 to assess the quality of patient care provided to breast cancer patients by longtime surgery chairman John Russell. Russell didn’t respond to a Journal request for comment last week.

Health Sciences Center officials say the independent outside review was done, although documents HSC officials provided to the Journal don’t reflect a completed, signed agreement with the reviewer.

They declined to discuss the findings, contending that would be a violation of the state’s medical peer review confidentiality law.

Back in 2011, in responding to Wallace’s lawsuit, UNMHSC publicly announced that its own in-house review of 18 months of surgical data found no evidence of substandard care by Russell.

Dr. Paul Roth, UNM Health Sciences Center chancellor, said back then that UNMSC had been “unjustifiably attacked,” adding that “in 31 years of practice, Dr. Russell has adhered to the highest standards of care.”

Complications

Wallace’s lawsuit alleged that Russell’s patients experienced “higher-than-usual rates of complications following his surgical procedures.”

“Dr. Wallace and others have observed that he frequently deviates from the accepted standards of care in his breast surgeries, resulting in unnecessary complications and poor outcomes,” the lawsuit alleged.

After Wallace’s lawsuit was filed, Roth told the Journal in April 2011 that an external review was pending.

Such a review would be typical when “serious career-threatening allegations are made by a peer” and to ensure objectivity because Russell is in a leadership position, Health Sciences Center spokesman Billy Sparks said at the time.

It took another two years before a UNM attorney formally requested the review, according to a Feb. 4, 2013, letter obtained by the Journal through a public records request.

In that letter, then-senior associate university counsel Scot Sauder asked a surgeon who performs breast surgeries at the Loma Linda (Calif.) University School of Medicine to review data sheets of Russell’s cases and report his findings.

Sauder wrote in the letter, “Our leadership determined that because Dr. Russell is the Chair of the Department of Surgery, and all of our potential internal reviewers ostensibly work for him, that it would be advisable to go outside the UNM Health Sciences Center for this review. Dr. Russell is aware of this review and supports it.”

Sauder asked Dr. Roger Hadley, dean of the School of Medicine at Loma Linda, and surgery chairman Dr. Carlos Garberoglio to sign the last page of the letter and return a copy if they agreed to undertake the review.

But the copy of the letter furnished to the Journal wasn’t signed by either physician. UNM Health Sciences Center officials haven’t explained why, despite a Journal request to do so.

Officials at Loma Linda University School of Medicine haven’t responded to a Journal request seeking information about the review.

‘Highly skilled’

Wallace did her specialty training in breast surgery at Stanford University Medical Center, where she was selected as the 2003-2004 Susan G. Komen Fellow.

She went to UNM Health Sciences in the fall of 2004 and became associate director of the Breast Multidisciplinary Program at the Cancer Center, where she practiced as a breast cancer surgeon and clinical researcher until August 2010.

Russell and Wallace performed the majority of breast surgeries, Russell has previously told the Journal .

UNMHSC officials wouldn’t say whether he still performs such surgeries. A Cancer Center website shows that at least two fellowship-trained female breast surgeons have joined the staff since Wallace left.

Wallace was described in a fall 2008 newsletter of the New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance as a “gem” and “an energetic and highly skilled breast surgeon.”

“With Dr. Wallace on the team, our patients get state-of-the-art surgical management,” said an article in the newsletter by Dr. Melanie Royce, of the Breast Multidisciplinary Program at the UNM Cancer Center.

According to her lawsuit, Wallace’s work became increasingly difficult after Russell became chairman of the surgery department in 2006.

Wallace’s lawsuit said she formally complained about Russell and raised ethical concerns about Dr. Ashwani Rajput, another cancer surgeon, but Health Sciences Center administrators “did nothing and later acquiesced in the retaliation” against her. Both Russell and Rajput have denied Wallace’s accusations.

Wallace’s lawsuit says she was forced out after Russell and Rajput imposed new and difficult conditions on her employment in 2010, including imposing radical changes in her responsibilities. She also received a false, negative performance evaluation that she believed could end her academic career, the lawsuit stated.

Health Sciences Center officials maintained that Wallace’s departure came after she refused to join a new approach to cancer care that required surgeons to take calls on holidays and after hours at University Hospital, and perform emergency room, inpatient consultations and other duties not necessarily specific to breast cancer.

A year after filing her lawsuit, Wallace was honored in 2012 with the Linda K. Estes Giraffe Award by the Albuquerque Community Foundation. Estes is a former associate director of athletics at UNM.

“This award is usually not given for outstanding performance in the nominee’s chosen field, but rather for those who take a stand – at great risk to themselves either personally or professionally – to make a difference in their community over and above their profession,” according to the foundation’s website.

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