Dr. Sheldon Randall has been king of obesity surgery in Massachusetts, running booming programs at three hospitals and training young Harvard surgeons as the operation became a popular option for profoundly overweight patients.
He has performed more than 6,000 weight-loss operations in his 30-year career — nearly one every weekday — and been featured in marketing campaigns by two suburban hospital systems. Under Randall’s leadership, their bariatric surgery programs were designated national centers of excellence by surgeons’ groups.
But behind the scenes, the surgeon was under investigation by the state Board of Registration in Medicine. Two months ago, the panel suspended Randall’s medical license, accusing him of a pattern of negligence and declaring him an “immediate and serious threat’’ to the public. Investigators charge that he did not recognize and treat post-surgery complications quickly enough in four patients, two of whom died.
Randall, 61, denies the allegations and has appealed the suspension, enlisting a team of experts who said he provided perfectly fine care for those patients. Four prominent Harvard physicians also have written letters to the board supporting him.
Regardless of the outcome, the case exposes defects in the health care system’s efforts to protect patients: Accreditation programs established to help patients choose the best hospitals may offer false assurances, and the medical board can take months to act on complaints. Hospitals do not routinely communicate with each other about disciplinary actions against doctors, and the medical board does not automatically contact hospitals either when suspensions or similar measures are reported to it.
While Hallmark Health System suspended Randall in March 2012, apparently prompting Winchester Hospital to discipline him as well, MetroWest Medical Center allowed Randall to keep operating — right up until several days before the board took away his license Aug. 16 of this year.
During that 17-month period, the board alleged that Randall negligently cared for two gastric bypass patients at MetroWest. One, a 67-year-old woman whose surgery was Dec. 19, 2012, died, dependent on a ventilator and a dialysis machine in her final days.
MetroWest would not comment on whether it knew about the Hallmark discipline. Hallmark and Winchester hospital officials also declined to discuss the case. The medical board added the Hallmark and Winchester disciplinary actions to Randall’s profile on the board website, but MetroWest would have had no reason to look there.
The job of notifying other hospitals of a suspension would have been the physician’s, not the medical board’s or Hallmark’s, said Barbara Piselli, the board’s interim executive director. “It is a gap in the system,’’ she said.
Piselli said she could not discuss why it took the board 18 months to investigate Randall, but she said cases often take months because investigators must subpoena medical records, interview witnesses, and locate an impartial expert to examine the cases. There “is a lot at stake for the physician and for the public,’’ she said.
The board does not publicly disclose ongoing investigations.
Randall’s attorney, Chad Brouillard of Boston, said neither he nor his client would discuss the allegations. But in a motion opposing the suspension of his license, Randall said MetroWest found no problems with his patient care. And he said an unnamed expert who reviewed Randall’s cases for the medical board could be a competitor with “a direct financial interest’’ in trying to discredit him because of his success.
At least eight patients or their survivors have sued the surgeon on grounds of medical malpractice during the past 13 years. At least three of the cases have been settled for undisclosed amounts.
In February 2011, Hallmark suspended Randall’s privileges for five weeks because of a “death in the course of/resulting from surgery,’’ according to the medical board’s website. This death was not included in the board’s allegations against Randall, however.
Piselli said in an interview that the board began investigating Randall in the spring of 2012, though she would not say what prompted the inquiry. But on March 14 of that year, Scott Ferullo, a 45-year-old Everett construction worker, underwent open gastric bypass surgery at Hallmark’s Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Medford, and he died four days later.
The board allegations refer to him as “patient A,” said his wife’s attorney, Robert Higgins of Lubin & Meyer in Boston.Continued...