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Makeshift beauty salon in hospital's ward for high-risk newborns is probed

L.A. County also is investigating broader allegations that doctors, nurses and staff in the unit at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center put babies at risk through substandard care.

May 06, 2010|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County officials have placed two staff members at Olive View- UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar on paid leave after allegations that they had participated in a makeshift beauty salon atop medical equipment in the ward for high-risk newborns, according to county officials.

The county this week also opened an investigation into broader allegations that doctors, nurses and staff at the neonatal intensive care unit put babies at risk through substandard care.

The allegations were contained in two anonymous complaints received by the commission that accredits the facility.

"Nurses and doctors through the shift get their manicures, eye brows waxed and nails filed," according to a copy of one of the complaints obtained by The Times. "The smell of acetone permeates the back area of the NICU."

Some of the hospitals' infectious disease staff, who are supposed to prevent such activity, instead participated, according to the complaint, including one doctor who "had a French manicure right on the high frequency ventilator."

Carol Meyer, the chief network officer for the county's Department of Health Services, said officials acted quickly to remove staff members allegedly operating the makeshift salon out of the unit.

"We've quickly taken decisive action," she said. "Sometimes individuals make bad judgments. Our department does not condone that."

The complaint also alleges that the NICU is understaffed and that unqualified doctors and staff have been treating patients, making mistakes and not reporting them.

Meyer said the allegations concerning staffing and qualifications were still being investigated. She said the NICU nurse manager resigned a few months ago and has not been replaced, although there is an acting nurse manager.

"As in any of our facilities or hospitals, there is turnover," Meyer said. "People come and go."

Meyer said investigators from the health department's audit and human resources divisions were sent to the hospital Tuesday after the complaints were filed with the Joint Commission, a private, nonprofit agency that accredits the hospital.

The commission notified hospital officials Monday about the allegations that neonatal patients were at risk and staff had violations, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Eakens Zhani.

She said she could not release the complaints or discuss specific allegations.

Commission officials have asked the hospital to respond by May 17.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district includes Olive View, called for faster action. Antonovich asked health department officials for an "expedited review" by Friday, according to his spokesman Tony Bell.

"This is a serious matter that requires swift and strong corrective action by the department. That includes discipline of staff and supervisorial personnel," Bell said. "We really want to get some answers quickly."

The hospital's chief executive, Carolyn Rhee, released a statement Wednesday, after referring calls about the complaints to Meyer's office.

"Olive View-UCLA Medical Center takes this situation very seriously and we are aggressively investigating the allegations," Rhee wrote. "The first concern of the hospital is always patient safety and quality of care. We comply with all state and federal requirements. The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit provides safe, high quality care to our youngest patients."

Olive View has 24 NICU beds, and half were filled Wednesday, Meyer said.

Meyer said no NICU patients were harmed or transferred to other hospitals as a result of the allegations.

One infant was transferred to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center on Wednesday morning, but Meyer said the move was unrelated. Hospital officials did not notify relatives of babies in the NICU this week about the investigation or complaints, Meyer said.

"There's nothing to notify parents of unless we verify something," Meyer said, stressing that county officials are still investigating. "There's no patient who is unsafe."

Hospital officials also did not notify state or federal regulators of the allegations, Meyer said, because they are not reportable medical errors under state law.

Federal officials who reviewed the complaint obtained by The Times agreed that the hospital was not obligated to notify them. At the same time, spokesmen for the California Department of Public Health and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said their agencies are now reviewing the allegations.

Olive View, one of four county-run hospitals, has been under scrutiny in recent years for putting patients at risk of death or serious injury. The hospital has been penalized four times for medical errors since 2007, one of only four facilities statewide to be fined four or more times.

The hospital has paid $125,000 in those cases, which involved the deaths of two adult patients and two incidents involving psychiatric patients.

County supervisors are currently considering a recommendation to pay nearly $400,000 to the family of a woman who died of an infection following gall bladder surgery at Olive View.

Earlier this year the county settled a malpractice claim involving the botched delivery of a newborn at Olive View for $5.9 million.

Claudia Chavez, a mother of twins delivered at Olive View in April 2008, sued the hospital after one of her daughters was deprived of oxygen during the caesarean delivery and suffered brain damage.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.

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