National News Desk

Hospital CEO's response to Black doctor's COVID-19 death prompts backlash

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Susan Moore/Facebook

By BILL HUTCHINSON, ABC News

(CARMEL, Ind.) — The president and CEO of an Indiana hospital has prompted backlash for releasing what medical professionals and health care advocates described as a “blame the victim” statement about a Black physician who died of COVID-19 after alleging she was mistreated by a doctor and nurses at his medical facility because of the color of her skin.

In a press release, Indiana University Hospital president and CEO Dennis M. Murphy described Dr. Susan Moore as a “complex patient” and said that during her stay at the IU Health North facility in Carmel, Indiana, the nursing staff treating her for coronavirus “may have been intimidated by a knowledgeable patient who was using social media to voice her concerns and critique the care they were delivering.”

Moore, 52, who operated her own family practice, died at another hospital she went to a day after being discharged from IU Health North, her 19-year-old son, Henry Muhammed, told ABC News.

Before being sent home from IU Health North, Moore recorded a scathing review of her treatment and posted the video on her Facebook page, saying, “I put forth, and I maintain, if I was white, I wouldn’t have to go through that.”

She alleged that the doctor treating her repeatedly ignored her complaints that she was in excruciating pain and wanted to send her home. That doctor, she alleged, initially told her he felt uncomfortable giving her painkillers and “made me feel like a drug addict,” she said on social media.

“This is how Black people get killed. When you send them home and they don’t know how to fight for themselves,” Moore said in the Dec. 4 video she posted on her Facebook page from her hospital bed at IU Health North. “I had to talk to somebody, maybe the media, to let people know how I’m being treated up in this place.”

Muhammed told ABC News in a telephone interview Wednesday that his mother knew her own medical history better than anyone else and should have been seen as an asset to the medical team and not as a sign of intimidation.

“I don’t understand how knowing your medical history is intimidating to a nurse or hospital staff,” Muhammed said.

He said that other than a chaplain from the IU Health system reaching out to him, no officials from the medical center have contacted him to apologize or express remorse.

In his statement, Murphy said he is “deeply saddened by her death and the loss her family is feeling.”

“I am even more saddened by the experience she described in the video,” Murphy wrote. “It hurt me personally to see a patient reach out via social media because they felt their care was inadequate and their personal needs were not being heard.”

Murphy promised to assemble a diverse panel of health care and diversity experts to conduct an external medical review of Moore’s concerns “to address any potential treatment bias.” At the same time, he appeared to defend the hospital staff that treated Moore.

“I do not believe that we failed the technical aspects of the delivery of Dr. Moore’s care,” Murphy wrote. “I am concerned, however, that we may not have shown the level of compassion and respect we strive for in understanding what matters most to patients. I am worried that our care team did not have the time due to the burden of this pandemic to hear and understand patient concerns and questions.”

Muhammed said he and his family have been speaking with lawyers about their options for recourse but have not yet decided whether to take legal action against IU Health.

“I hope they do an honest, unbiased investigation,” he said of the hospital. “But I can only hope for that. I don’t know if they will.”

Moore tested positive for COVID on Nov. 29 and went to IU Health North because she had been to the hospital before and it was close to her home, Muhammed said.

He said his mother was discharged from IU Health North on Dec. 7 but was only home for 12 hours before he had to call an ambulance to rush her to a different hospital. Moore wrote on her Facebook page that when she was admitted to Ascension St. Vincent Hospital in Carmel, her temperature had spiked to 103 degrees, and her blood pressure fell to 80/60. Normal blood pressure is generally 120/80.

Her health continued to deteriorate, and she was placed on a ventilator, her son said. She died of complications from COVID-19 on Dec. 20.

Moore’s ordeal has left public health advocates and medical providers disappointed in Murphy’s statement and prompted many of them to vent their outrage on social media.

Dr. Theresa Chapple, a Black physician and public health advocate from Maryland, wrote on Twitter that after reading Murphy’s statement, “I feel gaslit.”

“It is so utterly ridiculous and also something that Black people have been going through for quite some time in this country, and that includes Black doctors,” Chapple told ABC News on Wednesday. “We have gone through this when we try to advocate for ourselves, when we try to advocate for our children. We’re dismissed. We’re seen as angry, or upset or volatile. Intimidating is a new one that I hadn’t heard before reading this.”

Chapple said her work is focused on maternal mortality and trying to prevent Black women from dying as a result of giving birth.

“One of the ways that we tell women that they can do to help address that is to advocate for themselves or to have an advocate there with them. So to now take this tried-and-true approach that we know helps in certain circumstances and be able to clearly see that it does not help when you’re Black and educated, it’s really a slap in the face,” Chapple said. “What else can you do to save your own life?”

Christie VanHorne, a public health advocate from New York whose company, CVH Consulting, works to improve communication between patients and medical providers, said she felt so angered by Murphy’s response that she wrote IU Health a message complaining that the hospital was “victim-blaming” Moore for the alleged inadequate care she received.

“It’s honestly a disgrace to the medical profession that they would blame the victim and the nursing team,” VanHorne told ABC News on Wednesday. “To say that the nurses were intimidated by the patient, it’s absolutely ridiculous when she was just trying to advocate for herself.”

Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, a Black adjunct associate professor at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and former president of the American Public Health Association, and three of her medical profession colleagues wrote an op-ed piece on Moore’s case that was published in the Washington Post on Saturday saying Moore’s experience is more “confirmation” of racial inequities in the nation’s health care system that have risen to the surface during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That system has a name: racism. No matter how well-intentioned our health care system is, it has not rooted out the false idea of a hierarchy of human valuation based on skin color and the false idea that, if there were such a hierarchy, ‘White’ people would be at the top,” reads the op-ed Jones wrote with Aletha Maybank, chief health equity officer at the American Medical Association, Uché Blackstock, founder and CEO of Advancing Health Equity, and Joia Crear Perry, president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative.

Black people have also been disproportionately affected and have died from coronavirus more than their white counterparts. An analysis by the Brookings Institution released earlier this year showed that the COVID-19 death rate for Black people was 3.6 times the rate of white people.

An ABC News investigation published in April found that Black people in coronavirus hot spots are twice as likely to die from the illness than their white counterparts.

“Dr. Moore knew that she was being mistreated. She knew she was being mistreated because she knew what she was supposed to be getting. So that makes her voice even more powerful when she was calling them out,” Jones told ABC News on Wednesday.

Jones said IU Health has to acknowledge that systemic racism exists in its system before it can fix the problem.

“It’s not on one individual nurse to fix themselves or one individual doctor to fix themselves,” Jones said. “You have to engage a lot of people, understanding that racism exists, and that it’s a problem for the whole system.”

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