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A Miami jury has awarded $8 million to a woman who asked for $3.2 million in damages in a suit asserting her breast cancer spread into her bones and liver after doctors failed to notify her of the results of her early-detection mammogram test. Virginia Forbes, the attorney for the woman, asserted that the higher verdict was the direct result of widespread anger over the managed care system. The woman, Hyacinth Vassell, 42, underwent a routine mammogram screening for breast cancer at the University of Miami Hospitals and Clinics in October 1999. As a unit secretary for the cardiology intensive care unit, Vassell had been having annual screenings at the hospital since she turned 35. Her lawsuit claimed that the results of her last exam were never communicated to her, despite the fact that a radiologist had recommended some further probing. Less than a year after the exam, she detected a small lump in her breast and returned for another mammogram. A breast biopsy in August 2000 revealed cancer. After several months of aggressive treatment, Vassell’s cancer was declared terminal. Forbes filed a medical malpractice complaint against the hospital, its clinics and the primary care physician last December. The jury’s $8 million verdict found the hospital was 45 percent liable, the doctor 40 percent liable and Vassell 15 percent. According to Forbes, the bulk of the award, $4.5 million, was for future pain and suffering. Forbes believes the jury was sending an angry message that reflects the public’s dissatisfaction with managed care and the suspicion that patients are falling through the cracks. A ‘CARING PLACE’ “The University of Miami didn’t give her cancer,” Forbes said, “but they took away her chances of surviving it.” Kimberly Cook of Miami’s Fowler, White, Burnett, Hurley, Banick & Stickroot defended the medical university and the doctor. She described the institution as a “caring place where nobody would want this to happen.” Cook maintains that the hospital did comply with the federal guidelines mandated by the Mammogram Quality Standards Act, implemented in 1999 in an attempt to standardize the notification process. It stipulates that a facility that receives federal funding must notify patients of their results within 30 days in a “lay letter” — a plain language letter that a patient can easily understand. The university strives to use a system that is accurate and easy for patients, Cook said. A patient fills out a form prior to the test, and the results are mailed out as the bottom half of the same form. That way the contact address is current, Cook noted, and the patient recognizes the form in her mailbox. Vassell denied ever having received such a response letter. Forbes is quick to point out that Vassell was an employee of the hospital within walking distance of the doctor’s office. The plaintiff’s experts conceded that Vassell’s results were not suspicious, but rather nondiagnostic — and that is a big difference to Cook. In approximately 50 percent of the cases, she said, the patients’ results are incomplete and they are asked to come back in for a follow-up. “Ninety-five percent of the follow-ups turn out to be nothing,” she asserted. But that follow-up was a matter of life and death to Vassell, said Forbes. “The jury’s message was that matters of life and death you just don’t forget,” she said. Vassell v. The University of Miami, No. 01-30453 CA 11 (Miami-Dade Co. Cir. Ct.).

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