TrialSite News readers must remember that just because we include a research site or center on Site Watch doesn’t mean that their research facilities, staff and processes and quality assurance are not of the highest quality. Site Watch is a place for readers to keep track of research sites that are experiencing challenges that we should take seriously. In the case of Oregon Health and Science University, Dr. Rupa Bala, a cardiac electrophysiologist contends that she was subjected to sexual and racial discrimination in the institution. Dr. Bala contends her firing was retribution for complaining about substandard quality of care. On to the Oregonian story authored by Molly Harbarger.
A cardiac specialist has accused Oregon Health and Science University and the head of its cardiology department of forcing her out of a job in a civil rights lawsuit.
Dr. Rupa Bala, a cardiac electrophysiologist who left the Portland hospital in 2017, contends she was subjected to sexual and racial discrimination by the hospital and two of its executives over her style of communication, which some “perceived as too strong and direct.” Her suit also contends her complaints about the “substandard quality of care” in the electrophysiology/cardiology department opened her up to retaliation.
Bala says she joined OHSU in 2015, after being recruited away from the University of Pennsylvania, her employer of 12 years. But during her tenure, she claims, the hospital and specifically her bosses — Charles Henrikson, the chief of electrophysiology, and Joaquin Cigarroa, the chief of cardiology — treated her differently than her male colleagues.
The lawsuit, filed in May, but scheduled this week for a hearing, adds to the troubles within OHSU’s cardiology department. All the cardiologists on the state’s only heart transplant team quit or are leaving at the end of September.
The hospital suspended heart transplants for 14 days while leaders recruit new doctors.
Without specifying a dollar amount, Bala wants to be compensated for lost wages and benefits from being forced to quit, and for mental and emotional distress. She also is seeking punitive damages from the individual defendants, attorney’s fees and a declaration that OHSU, Henrikson and Cigarroa violated her constitutional right to equal protection under Title 42.
“While OHSU does not comment on ongoing litigation, we take allegations of discrimination seriously,” said a statement from OHSU. Bala said that almost immediately after starting at OHSU, nurses, laboratory staff and electrophysiology technicians began to complain about her direct communication style. Over the years, she said she was criticized by Henrikson and Cigarroa for things like not saying “hello” to a nurse or telling a radiologist to be quiet while Bala was performing delicate procedures, according to her lawsuit. Bala asserts that many of her male colleagues had similar communication styles but were not criticized for them. In 2015, when her managers started to relay the complaints to Bala, she was advised bring doughnuts to the lab staff to improve their relationship, the lawsuit claims. Meanwhile, Bala says that she consistently voiced concerns of the electrophysiology and other staff not being properly trained and making mistakes that could harm patients. In late October 2015, about 10 months after she started, Bala was given a Performance Expectation Plan, which is a step taken before termination. The next month, she was investigated by human resources after a nurse complained Bala bullied and harassed staff. The complaint was unsubstantiated, according to the lawsuit, but Bala still was required to meet with anesthesiology staff before every procedure; they, in turn, were told to report any concerns to Henrikson, Bala’s boss. Bala claims Henrikson also refused to invite her to recruitment dinners that male colleagues were invited to, until she reported it to human resources. Throughout her employment, Bala said in the suit, she was singled out for complaints because she was a woman and a woman of color.
“She reported that she had never before experienced this level of sexist behavior in the workplace,” the lawsuit said. In early 2017, a quality improvement and management committee looked at the problems Bala pointed out regarding patient care and found that the doctor was correct. According to the lawsuit, the committee said that the lab staff were not appropriately trained and wanted supervisors to create a definition of what proper training should look like.
In May, Bala said she was called a b—th by the lead electrophysiology technician during an ablation procedure. When she confronted him about it, he first denied he said it and then later said he had called someone else the word and apologized for using it. The following month, Bala said she quit to avoid being fired. Bala says that OHSU supervisors sent bad references to potential employers after she left. Bala now works at the University of Arizona. She says in her lawsuit that she lost confidence and dignity, her personal and professional reputation was damaged.