Physicians sue LA County for mishandling complaints of an allegedly abusive surgeon

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published October 18, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Physicians are suing LA County for improperly handling complaints about a prominent surgeon, whom they allege is abusive.

  • The suit follows trends of misconduct in hospitals, highlighting the need for systemic change.

Three prominent physicians from Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, CA, are suing Los Angeles County for improperly handling abuse in the workplace.[]

The suit highlights how LA County dismissed or ignored years of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation complaints filed against surgeon Louis Kwong, the former head of the hospital’s orthopedics department.

According to NBC News, the physicians behind the suit allege that, among other things, Kwong:[]

  • Created a toxic work environment.

  • Put patients at risk.

  • Discriminated against highly qualified female workers.

  • Carried a gun in the hospital.

  • Delayed acute surgeries so that he could perform non-acute, elective procedures.

  • Committed sexual misconduct on unconscious patients in the operating room.

  • Demanded that an operating room television (used to monitor a patient’s surgery) be switched to a baseball game during an operation.

Kwong is now on administrative leave—which began in March 2022—while investigators from law firm Sheppard Mullin investigate the allegations. Kwong has worked at Harbor-UCLA since 1990, according to his resume

Systemic abuse in surgery care

Problems highlighted by the lawsuit are not exclusive to Kwong and may be widespread within the broader Harbor-UCLA hospital system—and throughout the country.

The lawsuit follows “other incidents at health care facilities affiliated with prestigious universities where complaints about doctors were allegedly dismissed for years,” NBC News reports, pointing to a systemic problem.[] 

Nicholas Jones, MD, FACS, an aesthetic plastic surgeon in Atlanta, GA, says that too often, multifaceted efforts are at play in healthcare injustices: inadequate reporting channels, peer silencing, or victims' reluctance to report incidents. 

Dr. Jones adds that the reports are “saddening and deeply concerning.”

“The very foundation of the doctor-patient relationship is trust, and any breach of this trust is not only a disservice to the patient but also a tarnish [on] the reputation of dedicated professionals who uphold the highest standards of medical ethics,” he says.

Some also wonder if improper surgeon education—particularly whether surgeons are taught to be overconfident—may play a role in unethical behavior.

“Surgeons have been under intense pressure and competition from their pre-medical days through getting into a fellowship,” says Christopher Hanifin, EdD, PA-C, a physician assistant who formerly practiced in heart surgery. “This training model does not lend itself to docile personalities.”

Multiple complaints filed

Prior to filing the suit against LA County, the three physicians—two orthopedic surgeons and one former director of emergency medicine—had brought the issue to their supervisors and filed grievances with the county, according to NBC News. The issues brought up, however, were either ignored or never addressed.[]

With no relief as of yet, one of the actions states that the suit intends to “help create a safer and more tolerant atmosphere…for future patients, women and other targeted groups,” NBC News reports.[] 

Jennifer Silver, DDS, Dental Surgeon and Owner of Macleod Trail Dental Clinic in Canada, says that “medical tribalism”—the idea that healthcare professionals may form strong senses of loyalty—may contribute to people ignoring or dismissing complaints of wrongdoing.

A culture shift, including “encouraging open and transparent discussions about ethical conduct and addressing any form of misconduct, should be a priority,” Dr. Silver says. Support and counseling for impacted coworkers should also be prioritized, she adds.

What this means for you

Three physicians are suing LA County for improperly handling complaints regarding years of abuse carried out by a top surgeon in the area. The complaint highlights misconduct trends in hospitals.

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