Conference Preview: Ralph Weiss’ Patient Story

Conference Preview: Ralph Weiss’ Patient Story

What can go wrong when doctors put profits over patients

This is second in a series of blogs previewing some of the speakers and presenters at the upcoming Lown Institute Conference, May 5-7 in Boston, MA. Don’t miss Ralph Weiss’ patient story on Saturday May 6, followed by an expert panel of health care practitioners and journalists who will discuss the underlying issues behind Ralph’s story. Register for the conference here!

“We need to do surgery on your spine right away. We risk nerve damage if we don’t.” This is what Jeffrey Wang, a renowned spine surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center told attorney Ralph Weiss when he came in with lower back pain. Weiss was surprised; his previous orthopedist, who had semi-retired, had always counseled him to treat his recurring back problems with medication and rest instead of surgery. But coming from a family of doctors and having worked with physician clients, Weiss was not one to distrust a surgeon.

Before the surgery, which involved removing a disc from in between two vertebrae and fusing the bone between the vertebrae, Wang recommended using bone morphogenetic protein (BMP), a product that stimulates bone growth. Weiss recalls Wang saying, “I would choose BMP for my own children.” But what Wang did not mention is that he would be using BMP “off-label,” which means the Food and Drug Administration had not approved it for the surgery Wang would perform. He also failed to disclose he was being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees by Medtronic, the manufacturer of BMP, and approximately $1 million by SeaSpine, the manufacturer of the spinal cage Wang chose to use in the surgery.

Within days after the surgery, Weiss began suffering severe pain and vomiting. At first, Wang did not link his symptoms to the surgery, and the delay in diagnosis nearly cost Weiss his life. He had a deep spinal infection. “For months I was throwing up 30 times a day. My friends thought I was dying,” said Weiss. After numerous tests, Weiss finally got an MRI that showed the surgery had resulted in an abscess against his spine the size of a grapefruit. It could have burst at any moment. Over the course of four months, Weiss would undergo three more back surgeries to clear the infection and address other complications.

A year and a half later Weiss learned that Wang had not been present during his first surgery, which was conducted by surgical trainees, who initially operated on the wrong part of his back. After consulting with numerous orthopedic experts, Weiss learned that surgery was entirely unnecessary.

Weiss was successfully treated for the infection, but his life is not the same.  He’s in chronic pain, probably due to the BMP triggering excess growth of bone that is pressing on nerves in his back. “I used to be a competitive cyclist, tennis player, skier, mountain climber,” said Weiss, “I can’t do those activities now.” This experience has also changed his views on medicine. While he still considers himself an admirer of physicians, Weiss is disillusioned after seeing what doctors can do when corrupted by the system.  “I’d like to think my experience was the exception,” said Weiss, “But regrettably, you hear these things happening to other people. My story is not an isolated incident.”

At the Lown Institute Conference, Weiss will tell his story publicly for the first time. Following Weiss will be a panel of presenters to discuss the different forms of corruption that affected his care and that cause harm to other patients every day. Journalist Jeanne Lenzer will discuss regulatory capture and how it leads to the approval of unsafe and ineffective drugs and devices; researcher and blogger Roy Poses will talk about hospitals’ financial interest in churning patients through rather than providing integrated care; and health policy professor John Abramson will focus on industry’s corrupting influence on medical research and trial design.

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