August 9, 2021 / Fred Schulte, Kaiser Health News
Cristina Martinez’s spinal operation in Houston was expected to be routine. But after destabilizing her spine, the surgeon discovered the implant he was ready to put in her back was larger than he wanted to use — and the device company’s sales rep didn’t have a smaller size on hand, according to a report he filed about the operation.
Dr. Ra’Kerry Rahman went ahead with the operation, and Martinez awoke feeling pain and some numbness, she alleges. When Rahman removed the plastic device four days later and replaced it with a smaller one, Martinez suffered nerve damage and loss of feeling in her left leg, she claims.
Martinez is suing the surgeon, implant maker Life Spine Inc., and its distributor and sales representatives, alleging their negligence led to her injuries because the right part wasn’t available during her first surgery. All deny wrongdoing. The case is set for trial in November.
The lawsuit takes aim at the bustling sales networks that orthopedic device manufacturers have built to market ever-growing lines of costly surgical hardware — from spinal implants to replacement knees and artificial hips commonly used in operations. Sales in 2019 topped $20 billion, though covid-19 forced many hospitals to suspend elective surgeries for much of last year.
Device makers train sales reps to offer surgeons technical guidance in the operating room on the use of their products. They pay prominent surgeons to tout their implants at medical conferences — and athletes to offer celebrity endorsements. The industry says these practices help ensure that patients receive the highest-quality care.