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OHSU needs to stop the blame game, promise safer procedures

(Soapboxes are guest commentaries from our readers, and anyone is welcome to write one. Dr. Tom Saddoris is a doctor of internal medicine. He specializes in treating medical diseases from pneumonia to diabetes and has been practicing in Oregon since 1976.

As a general internist in Portland for 30 years, I often treat patients with needs that require the expertise of a consultant. When faced with the question of where the patient should be referred, among the important criteria we discuss are the facility's patient safety record and its insurance coverage in case the medical staff commits an act of negligence.

While the tram ride is beautiful and the multi-million dollar riverfront development and new buildings on the hillside are state of the art, I do not recommend Oregon Health and Science University to my patients. That is because OHSU receives special privileges and unfair competitive advantages enjoyed by no other medical center in Oregon - placing business over patient care and safety.

The Legislature several years ago described OHSU as a public agency and since then the hospital has been protected under the state's tort claims act. If a patient at OHSU is negligently injured and his or her life is ruined, the person cannot recover the costs to pay for the injuries.

I applaud the Oregon Supreme Court ruling in the Jordaan Clarke case, telling OHSU that no one hospital should enjoy special privileges. If negligent care is proven, even wrongdoers at OHSU can be held accountable and pay for the permanent damage caused.

We are seeing OHSU's response. Rather than addressing its own financial mismanagement, the university is making a scapegoat of 9-year-old Jordaan Clarke, a boy who is disabled for life because the hospital staff deprived him of oxygen for 14 minutes. OHSU is threatening budget cuts, clinic closures and tuition hikes. It's a classic case of transferring blame from where it belongs - the institution's own bad financial decisions.

I am disappointed at OHSU's 'woe is me' public relations assault. Not once, while pointing the finger at Jordaan and other victims, while crying about the need to purchase malpractice insurance, have the leaders on the hill talked about delivering a quality product to Oregonians.

I know from my own experience the cost of insurance goes down when you make fewer mistakes. I would like someone at OHSU to step up and promise safer medical procedures. In lieu of that, just pay for the insurance like every other hospital has always done.

As a doctor, I tend to think of OHSU as a teaching institution. In that role, its primary mission should be to teach the responsibilities of medical professionalism and the art of caring for the patient. I dare say that a refusal to be accountable and a penchant for blaming your troubles on your patients teach the wrong lesson.