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Secretive Medical Culture Protects Bad Doctors, Puts Patients at Risk

Jonathan Ellis shines a harsh light on the culture of secrecy with which state medical boards and hospitals shield doctors from facing the consequences of their malpractice. Focusing on the "trail of pain" left by surgeon Allen Sossan, Ellis shows that Nebraska and South Dakota boards that review doctors' performance seem more concerned about protecting doctors' privacy than protecting patients' lives.

Ellis's report includes stories of patients who were paralyzed or killed by Sossan's shoddy and unnecessary surgeries. Complaints to the Nebraska licensing board did not result in action against Sossan's license. When Sossan came to practice in Yankton, Avera Sacred Heart Hospital allowed him in, despite the grim stories that attached to his name:

They delayed granting him privileges, but after about a year, Sossan threatened to sue. Matt Michels, a lawyer for Avera Sacred Heart, told the executive committee that Sossan probably would prevail in court under laws that bar organizations from restraining trade. The problem for the executive committee was this: Nebraska’s licensing board had not taken action against Sossan’s license, and Faith Regional had not reported adverse activity, so Avera didn’t have grounds to reject his request for credentials [Jonathan Ellis, "Secrecy Protects Surgeon's Trail of Pain," that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.03.23].

Yes, that Matt Michels. Now Lieutenant Governor Matt Michels.

But don't blame him; blame the licensing system and the medical culture that insulates doctors from punishment and bad press and ties the hands of administrators and institutions would try to protect patients from bad doctors.

* * *
By the way, one lawyer who successfully sued Sossan for killing a patient with unnecessary surgeries has managed to pierce the institutional veil of secrecy and discover that Sossan's entire career may be based on cheating on a test:

Tim James, a Yankton lawyer who represented Bockholt’s children and who is representing other clients against Sossan, uncovered records showing that Sossan — who then went by the name Alan Soosan — was arrested while in college in the early 1980s for felony grand theft and burglary. Sossan was arrested in Florida, according to a police report, for breaking into the biology department and stealing a test. “What made it really interesting was that it was a core requirement to get into medical school,” James said. “It’s not like he was stealing a French test” [Ellis, 2014.03.23].

As a French teacher, I object to the characterization of my work products as trivial.


  1. Jerry 2014.03.23

    Matt Michels, hmmmm. No wonder the dude is getting groomed to be our next king and savior, he knows the ropes, the secrets and the value of hiding things. We are doomed by the groomed to be a wasteland, the receptacle of uranium exploitation and oil spill catastrophe's, what a legacy. Yup, there is another millionaire in the wings. If not now, soon after taking the reigns of the corrupted, bloated carcass we call Pierre republican politics. At over $100,000.00 buckeroos a year to do handmaiden jobs for the present King, he is on track to do just that.

  2. rollin potter 2014.03.23

    sounds like another secretive society that protects there peers to the max. Like the state judges and lawyers group!!!!!

  3. mike from iowa 2014.03.23

    iowa protects doctors,too. Makes perfect sense-in capitalistic rill'murrica an entrepreneur's right to kill trumps John Q Public's right to life.Or right to know or roight to make informed decisions,or.....

  4. Jerry 2014.03.23

    Amazing numbers larry kurtz. The hills folk like to be mavericks and cost the rest of us with their freedom shtick.

  5. Jerry 2014.03.23

    So 6,900 South Dakotans have signed up and started to pay for health insurance, that is great larry. I guess the rest are just too busy to do that. What I have always found distasteful is that Natives really don't have the healthcare they were promised as they have to pay for it. The only advantage is that Natives do not have co-pays, deductibles or prescription costs through the Marketplace, that is a pretty good deal. As this blog is about, they and the rest of South Dakotans still have to put up with the knowledge that guys like Matt Michels and the rest of the enablers, protect crappy doctors that prey on us all.

  6. PrairieLady 2014.03.23

    From the 2010 census. Of the South Dakotans under 65, 94,404 do not have health insurance. The majority of these uninsured are adults.
    Only 6900 have signed up for ACA? Totally amazing.... what does that say?

  7. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.03.23

    Medical professional organizations are extraordinarily cozy. There have been very recent changes in MN due to superb investigative reporting and public outcry. Transparent government helps a lot too.

    Some energetic journalism needs to happen in good ole SouDakoda.

  8. Jerry 2014.03.23

    Well Prairie Lady, I guess it says that the federal government will collect $8,312,880.00 in penalty's from these smart guys and they still will not have health coverage!

  9. Roger Cornelius 2014.03.23

    There is something wrong with the Dr. Sasson situation.

    If health organizations and hospitals would do their job properly these problems wouldn't exist.

    When I served on the board of directors of the community health center in Rapid City the board approved all doctors. Not feeling qualified to determine the qualifications of doctors for specific roles and functions demanded by medical boards, the state and hospitals, we would turn this responsibility over to a professional organization for vetting doctors. The companies that do vetting are very thorough not just in personal background checks, but in where they worked and how they performed.

    Often times doctors do have to wait for hospital or clinic privileges, but there is generally a legitimate reason that can be worked in a short period of time.

    From what I know about this doctor, the CEO of the health center would not even have offered his name for board approval.

    Most hospitals and health organizations do a pretty good job of vetting and when they find a dirty doctor, get rid of him quickly for good reason, they do want to risk any sort of medical malpractice lawsuits or premium increases.

  10. Merlyn Schutterle 2014.03.23

    Ya, well, they protect the doctors here at Mayo as well. Mayo is finding it hard to find doctors, so they have to hire whatever comes along. Not every Mayo doctor is a great one. That is what my son says and he is a Mayo doctor himself.

  11. Jenny 2014.03.24

    Did you have a bad experience with a Mayo doctor, Merlyn, or is your son not fitting in with the 'Mayo culture'? That is such a vague statement and I have never heard that Mayo is having a hard time finding doctors, and that they have to 'hire whatever comes along'. If that was the case, I don't see how it could possibly have the world wide quality reputation it is known for. Mayo doctors work on a salary that isn't known to be the highest around, so perhaps that makes more money-driven doctors go elsewhere.
    There is definitely a Mayo culture of what you could probably call 'eliteness' amongst the doctors which perhaps your son is turned off by, but I just don't believe your statement that they hire whatever comes along. They would not be doing hundreds of bone marrow, lung, and heart transplant surgeries a year with exceptional results if that was the case.

  12. Roger Cornelius 2014.03.24


    I believe you are referring to convicted serial killer Dr. Michael Swango. He admitted to four murders, but the FBI believes he may have committed between 35 to 60 murders of patients, his wife and co-workers.

    Dr. Swango worked at Sanford USD Medical Center in Sioux Falls in the early 1990's after being released from prison for a poisoning murder in Ohio.

  13. Douglas Wiken 2014.03.24

    Roger, yes. And Swango changed his name a bit more than the doctor the Argus discusses did. That doctor dropped an "o" out of his name. And the doctor the Argus discusses apparently did not intentionally murder anybody even if his allegedly unnecessary surgery had some bad consequences.

    What appears to be common in both is a failure of SD State Government to adequately check on and follow up on later complaints, etc.

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