Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the annual Shkreli Awards: where the greediest, the most dysfunctional, and the most widely hated medical institutions are king.
The award, produced by a health care think tank called the Lown Institute, is named for Martin Shkreli. His famously “punchable” face hit the headlines a few years ago after he raised the price of the drug Daraprim -- pretty standard treatment for a life-threatening parasitic infection -- by more than 5,000 percent as the head of Turing Pharmaceuticals. His punishment included seven years in prison, the forfeiture of almost $7.4 million and a one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album, and being forever referred to as the “pharma bro.”
Now it’s our turn to get a bit of that spotlight. A panel of esteemed judges -- mostly scholars of medicine and public health -- chose Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), recently rebranded Hennepin Healthcare, as one of this year’s honorees.
How did they do it? You may recall back in 2018, when an advocacy group revealed that “severely agitated” HCMC emergency room patients became unknowing and unwilling guinea pigs for a heavy-duty antipsychotic (haloperidol) and a powerful anesthetic (ketamine).
Between 2015 and 2016, 146 people were injected with these drugs for research purposes -- reportedly, even after one patient saw the needle and said, “Whoa, whoa, that’s not cool -- I don’t need that!” That patient allegedly became “nonverbal and unintelligible” moments later. (Fun fact: Ketamine is considered a “date rape drug,” because it has the ability to erase and alter memories.)
HCMC’s Institutional Review Board had initially waved off any concerns about whether the patients needed to consent to being a part of this exciting drug trial, saying there was “minimal risk” associated with the treatment.
In spite of this, about 40 percent of the patients injected with ketamine suffered “respiratory distress” and ended up needing a ventilator to breathe. The Food and Drug Administration quickly determined the study constituted foul play, and at least one of those intubated patients filed suit against HCMC in November, claiming medical malpractice, battery, and negligence under state law. (HCMC didn’t respond immediately to requests for comment.)
Bad as it may sound, it only got HCMC No. 10 on the list, which also includes a San Francisco hospital that charged a couple nearly $19,000 for determining their infant son was just fine after he fell off a bed and hit his head, and a New York nursing home that gave its terminally ill residents expensive, unnecessary therapy.