After working for Winkler County Memorial Hospital for 25 years, Texas Nurse Anne Mitchell took a risk and reported Dr. Rolando G. Arafiles' alleged bad practices to the Texas Medical Board. She never thought that the risk would lead to the severe consequences it did when she came under charges of her own - felony charges.
Friends in High Places
In April 2009, Mitchell wrote an anonymous report describing improper practices by a doctor. The reported described incidents including a failed skin graft Dr. Arafiles allegedly should not have been performing in the first place; rubber sutured to a patient's finger; and inappropriate recommendations and sales of herbal medicine to patients.
What Mitchell did not count on was Dr. Arafiles' close ties with certain men of the law in Texas. Winkler County Sheriff Robert L. Roberts Jr. is Dr. Arafiles' patient and claims Arafiles saved his life after a heart attack. County Attorney Scott M. Tidwell is a reported political ally of the sheriff as well as Dr. Arafiles' personal attorney.
Medical Malpractice Reporting in Texas
While nurses are not legally obligated to report medical malpractice, they are within their rights to report it when they witness treatment they believe goes against best, regulatory and standard medical practices. Mitchell, therefore, was not overstepping her bounds in submitting a report.
The prosecution in the case argued that Mitchell's report violated a Texas law regarding abuse of office. Specifically, it argued she misused official information by using her position to obtain patient information for her report.
The jury did not think Mitchell's use of the file information was improper, because nurses handle such information regularly and the files were essential in illustrating her concerns.
Mitchell's intention behind the report was also scrutinized in court. Rulings in this sort of case rely heavily on the basis of good faith. If Mitchell's past behavior toward the doctor verified a pattern of malice, her report would become more suspicious, as though she had it out for the doctor.
According to some witnesses, Mitchell reportedly had made some negative comments about the doctor. The prosecution stressed that information in order to show that Mitchell used the hospital files not for governmental, ethical reasons but for personal reasons designed to harm Dr. Arafiles.
But in the end, the prosecution failed to prove its case, and Mitchell was acquitted of the charges. There were enough witnesses to confirm Mitchell's concerns about Dr. Arafiles and documented incidents of his questionable practices to show that her malpractice report was legal and ethical.
Mitchell has won one battle but is now beginning another. The hospital illegally fired her due to this case, according to Mitchell's attorney. The attorney says without her guilt having been established, Mitchell's rights to due process and free speech were violated.
Freedom to Report
Medical care providers should always have their patients' best interests at heart. And certainly, for the most part, that usually is the case.
Nonetheless, it is important to create an environment in which people feel comfortable reporting malpractice. Failure to do so will result in the decline of the medical field and the mistreatment of patients.
A subsequent victory for Mitchell will further support this cause.
If you are a victim of medical malpractice or want to report bad practices, contact an attorney in your area. A lawyer will evaluate your case and guide you toward the next legal step.