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PENALTY CALLED TOO LENIENT ON SURGEON

The state Health Department says the punishment imposed on a prominent Buffalo heart surgeon for his personal conduct with nurses and his medical care to some patients isn't fair.

Officials plan to seek a more severe penalty than the one that has been imposed on Dr. John Bell-Thomson -- a one-year suspension from medical practice and a requirement that he get psychiatric counseling.

Bell-Thomson and his attorney also say the punishment isn't fair. They plan to appeal for a less severe penalty.

The state Board for Professional Medical Conduct suspended Bell-Thomson's license for five years but stayed four years of the penalty. It placed him on probation once he returns to medical practice and said he must seek counseling for as long as a therapist deems necessary.

The board charged Bell-Thomson with negligence, gross negligence, moral unfitness and improper use of hospital forms.

The incidents date to 1988 and took place at three hospitals: Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, where Bell-Thomson was chairman of the division of cardiothoracic surgery until 1992; Erie County Medical Center, where he has directed the heart surgery program since 1993; and Millard Fillmore Hospital, where he worked for several years when he first came to Buffalo.

Witnesses alleged that Bell-Thomson threw a towel at one nurse, pushed or possibly punched another and splattered blood on a third.

The board also criticized the care he gave to five patients, characterizing it as "occasional medical inattention" by a physician busy with too many cases. And the board reviewed an altercation at Albert Einstein in which another doctor suffered a separated shoulder during a fight with Bell-Thomson. Bell-Thomson, who is credited with making Erie County Medical Center's troubled heart surgery program a success, denied the charges. But he argued in the proceedings that, in hindsight, he would have done some things differently in the medical cases.

The board called the suspension a "wake-up call" to a good, but arrogant, physician who needed to learn that his unprofessional conduct could not be tolerated.

Officials wrote: "The hearing committee does strongly believe that overall (Bell-Thomson) is capable of providing medically acceptable care and treatment. However, (he) has an arrogant attitude and a 'I'm the best, don't question me' view of himself, which needs to be addressed. (His) explanations almost invariably pass blame onto others and have a 'not my fault' intonation."

The Health Department, which brought the case against Bell-Thomson, was unhappy with the penalty and will appeal it to the Administrative Review Board of the Professional Medical Conduct Board, said Christine Smith, a department spokeswoman. The department will ask for a stronger sanction but does not plan to specify, a penalty, she said.

The Administrative Review Board has 45 days to make a decision once an appeal is filed. Bell-Thomson may also file a civil lawsuit in the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Albany, arguing that the penalty was arbitrary and capricious.

Actions taken by the Board for Professional Medical Conduct against physicians are different from malpractice actions. Malpractice cases are heard in civil court and seek financial awards.

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