The state has opened a wide-ranging probe into the conduct of two renowned Long Island doctors accused in lawsuits of performing unnecessary brain surgeries on dozens of patients, said two officials with knowledge of the investigation.
The state Office of Professional Medical Conduct probe, the officials said, is focused on the work the two physicians - Dr. Thomas Milhorat and Dr. Paolo Bolognese - performed at North Shore University Hospital's Chiari Institute, which draws patients from around the world.
The doctors first drew scrutiny about a year ago when they were accused of abandoning a Pennsylvania woman under anesthesia on an operating table for 20 minutes on April 10 after neither surgeon showed for her scheduled surgery.
A separate state probe cited the hospital for 14 deficiencies in how it handled Jennifer Ronca's surgery but imposed no fines nor focused specifically on Milhorat or Bolognese. Milhorat has retired but still consults with the Chiari Institute, which he founded. Bolognese, after a two-week suspension imposed by the hospital after the Ronca incident, still practices at the hospital.
The latest probe is aimed directly at the doctors, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Investigators are looking into the actions of the two doctors in recommending a new type of surgery for Chiari malformation, a disorder in which part of the brain is squeezed into the spinal cord, one official said.
The surgery - a procedure on the tethered cord, the tissue attachments that limit the movement of the spinal cord - has sparked nearly 30 federal lawsuits in the past year against the two doctors. Most of the lawsuits allege the patients' conditions did not require this type of surgery, and that the surgeons did not disclose the experimental nature of it, resulting in their injury.
The medical conduct office has said it is also examining Ronca's complaint. "The issues you raise fall within the jurisdiction of this office and are being investigated," a Sept. 2 letter to Ronca from an investigator said.
Once the probe is completed, investigators could file formal charges to be heard by a state board, which could then revoke or suspend the doctors' licenses. The board or investigators could also exonerate the doctors.
The state Health Department and North Shore University Hospital declined to comment on the probe. The doctors' attorney, Anthony Sola, did not return calls this week.
Lee Goldsmith, a Manhattan attorney who is handling most of the patient lawsuits, said he has sent documentation of their complaints to state investigators. "If the claims we have are proven, [Milhorat and Bolognese] should not be practicing medicine," Goldsmith said.
In her Aug. 26 complaint to the state, Ronca, who is also suing, said Milhorat charged Medicare $6,000 for the surgery he didn't show up for. "All of this raises questions that need to be answered," Ronca's attorney, Mark Bodner of Manhattan, told Newsday.
Hospital spokesman Terry Lynam said a top priority of the hospital's new neurosurgery chairman, Dr. Raj Narayan, is "to address the situation with the Chiari Institute."