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Hospital chief apologizes for donor recruitment method

Models were used in marrow drive

By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / December 29, 2010

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The chief executive of UMass Memorial Health Care issued an apology yesterday for the hospital’s practice of using professional models as lures to recruit potential bone marrow donors.

In a memo to doctors and other members of the Worcester medical institution, John O’Brien called the practice “an error in judgment’’ and said it had been discontinued.

“Let me say right from the start that the use of professional models for marketing purposes here was not appropriate for an academic health care organization like ours, which holds itself to the highest standards,’’ O’Brien wrote.

UMass Memorial has used the models, women dressed in short skirts and heels, to work booths at malls and public events in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island to solicit people to be tested for a potential life-saving bone marrow match. Investigators from Massachusetts and New Hampshire are looking into the practice, as well as whether UMass Memorial charged insurers high rates for testing the DNA samples and misled donors about the cost of DNA testing.

O’Brien said the hospital was cooperating with the attorneys general from the two states and conducting an internal review.

“UMass Memorial leadership is focused on these recent developments and takes this matter very seriously,’’ O’Brien said. “We are working diligently to achieve a full understanding of the situation. We have a dedicated internal team that is working closely with outside experts to independently review the facts.’’

The hospital was recruiting donors for its Caitlin Raymond International Registry. The registry, founded in 1986, keeps track of potential donors who could be a match for patients in need of a transplant. The registry has helped approximately 20,000 patients get transplants, said O’Brien.

He said the purpose of the recruitment effort was not to make money but to expand the number of potential donors in the database. But O’Brien acknowledged the flap over the models had clouded the registry’s accomplishments.

“For many of the patients served, this was literally their last chance for treatment,’’ he said.

O’Brien also stressed that UMass Memorial was not directly charging donors for testing and that reimbursement rates for the lab test are negotiated directly with most insurers. O’Brien said the hospital was looking into reports that some patients were billed by their insurance companies later for a portion of a test.

John M. Guilfoil can be reached at jguilfoil@globe.com.