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A former Northfield Hospital + Clinics nurse manager is suing the hospital, alleging that two doctors failed to follow acceptable standards of care and that when she reported her findings she was fired. (File photo/southernminn.com)

A former Northfield Hospital & Clinics nurse is alleging that the hospital violated the state’s Whistleblower Act by firing her as she tried to sound the alarm about improper surgical techniques and delayed followup visits, leaving patients at greater risk of cancer recurrence.

Kaya Latzke, who served as the hospital’s endoscopy program manager for more than five and a half years, filed a lawsuit Friday in Dakota County District Court seeking damages, back pay and compensation for benefits she would have been entitled to if she was still employed at the hospital.

According to her LinkedIn page, Latzke served a patient care supervisor at Abbott Northwestern Hospital from 2013-14 and as a registered nurse for a group of gastroenterologists from 2006-13. She is now the director of medical content development at Twin Cities-based Provation Medical.

In the lawsuit, Latzke said she discovered last year that endoscopic physician Katya Ericson “was putting patients at serious risk of harm and breaching national clinical standards,” by having most of her colonoscopy and polypectomy removal procedures last well beyond the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy standard of 30 minutes, “directly resulting in increased sedation medication well above national standards.”

In a statement Tuesday, Northfield Hospital and Clinics Director of Communications Betsy Spethmann declined to address the suit’s specifics.

“We can say that this case is without merit,” she said in an emailed statement. “Endoscopy care at NH+C is safe, thorough and professional. We regularly review care provided and connect patients who require followup care. Endoscopy patients who require followup care, for any reason, have been notified.”

According to the complaint, Ericson used “an outdated and dangerous medical technique for the piecemeal removal of colorectal polyps with a forceps instead of a snare, which is now the standard of practice that must be provided.”

The complaint states staff told Latzke that Ericson didn’t know and/or was unskilled at using a snare. According to the complaint, Ericson decided follow up visits for patients who had polyps should be in three to five years rather than the standard six to 12 months, which ensures successful removal and reduces the recurrence of the cancer. According to the complaint, the length of time Ericson preferred placed patients at heightened risks of colon cancer and death.

In mid-October 2019, Latzke claims she learned the hospital’s medical malpractice insurance carrier advised Ericson to author a letter for impacted patients informing them of the issues, the deviation from the standard of care and their rights. The carrier also advised the patients should have the choice of where to be seen, have no out-of-pocket expenses and not be operated on by any physician from the surgeon group.

Court documents allege the letter sent by the hospital “did not candidly advise (patients) of the dire situation, nor did it advise the patient of their right to receive care elsewhere.”

Latzke reported that when she shared her concerns with Ericson in a May 2019 meeting, Ericson allegedly become angry and left the meeting. The following day, Latzke said she reported the events in an email to senior NH+C staff leaders.

In late June 2019, Latzke reportedly learned from her staff that Ericson and fellow endoscopic physician Ashley Marek were putting their patients “at serious risk of injury during colonoscopies by placing an excessive amount of pressure on the abdomen,” a violation of national clinical standards. Ericson allegedly responded in an email blaming hospital nursing staff for the issue.

Writeups allegedly showed Ericson and Marek on at least one occasion required nurses to hold pressure for a time far surpassing national guidelines.

In July 2019, Latzke’s staff allegedly notified her that Marek had violated her endoscopy training protocol for a second time.

Ericson’s LinkedIn profile shows she has been an NH+C general surgeon for a little more than six years. Marek joined Northfield Hospital and Clinics in early 2019 after a stint at Hennepin Healthcare as a general and trauma surgeon, and a physician who specializes in treating those in intensive care with special interest in endocrine, hernia and robotic surgeries.

‘They felt like they were being required to lie’

In mid-October 2019, an Endoscopic Department staff survey reportedly revealed concerns regarding the quality of services provided by physicians.

“Some of the staff went so far as to say that they felt like they were being required to lie to patients by physicians regarding the patient’s care and the lack of some following established protocols,” the complaint states.

According to the complaint, in a November 2019 meeting, hospital leaders decided that any patient who had a piecemeal polypectomy where the pathology report came back with a high risk of precancerous cells “had to be notified of their dire need to have their colon reanalyzed.”

However, after the meeting, the hospital’s legal counsel allegedly advised NH+C to downplay the risks to guard against medical malpractice lawsuits.

“Upon hearing this, Latzke respectfully but firmly stated her opposition to sugarcoating the public health concern, telling the team that now was the time to be forthright, accurate and honest with patients about what happened so they could make an educated decision regarding their care,” the complaint states.

Eight days later, Latzke was reportedly demoted from a full-time manager to part-time managerial and floor nurse responsibilities. The following day, Latzke reported concerns that she was being retaliated against and was allegedly told that her demotion was a normal cost-saving measure. Left unconvinced, Latzke in December 2019 met with the hospital’s HR director to share her concerns for about retaliation.

On Feb. 12, Latzke was told her position was being immediately eliminated. According to the complaint, five days later, NH+C posted for an endoscopy nursing position, and, following Latzke’s removal, promoted a clinical nurse to clinical coordinator, taking over some of Latzke’s responsibilities.

Latzke’s lawyer, Ross Stadheim of Halunen Law, said NH+C officials and Latzke will meet next to set out the proposed schedule for the case. The discovery process is slated to take nine to 12 months, during which documents considered relevant will be shared with opposing counsel. Depositions, including Latzke’s under oath, will then be taken. A motion for summary judgment seeking a conclusion of the case could take place before a trial. However, if the presiding judge rejects the motion, the case would then proceed to a jury trial.

Stadheim insists his client was acting in the patients’ best interests.

“She stood up for these patients and she did the right thing,” he said. “She was penalized for doing the right thing.”

The hospital has about three weeks to respond to Latzke’s suit.

Reach Associate Editor Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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