Special report: Targeting teens for gastric bands

Mon Jul 26, 2010 9:08am EDT
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By Debra Sherman

CHICAGO (Reuters) - After one patient died and others suffered serious complications following Lap-Band surgery, Dr. Neelu Pal had seen enough. A petite surgical resident now aged 40, she began quietly calling patients about to undergo the weight-loss procedure at New York University's Medical Center, telling them she feared for their safety.

Pal had previously raised her concerns with hospital officials, complaining -- to no avail -- about the lack of care given after surgery and incomplete or inaccurate medical forms that were taken prior to surgery.

She was fired weeks after hospital authorities learned she had contacted patients in January 2006. She has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit -- the case is pending -- and enrolled in law school. Pal, who came to the United States from India a little over a decade ago to practice medicine, says she has been blackballed from her chosen profession.

The NYU bariatric surgery practice where she worked is widely considered one of the world's most experienced. But in an interview with Reuters, Pal described the facility as a hectic Lap-Band factory.

"My impression at the time was that the practice was disorganized, but once I knew more about the system, I could see what they were trying to do was get as many patients on to the operating table as possible," she said.

During her three months at NYU Langone Medical Center's Surgical Weight Loss Program in late 2005 and early 2006, two surgeons -- Dr. Christine Ren and Dr. George Fielding, who are married -- implanted gastric bands into as many as 20 patients in a single day, according to Pal.

Known as pioneers in the field, Fielding and Ren are also paid consultants of Allergan Inc, the Botox and breast implant maker which is the leading manufacturer of the gastric band. Though rivals have been gaining, Allergan's Lap-Band still commands more than two-thirds of a $300 million to $400 million market.

To critics, Pal's allegations -- some of which were corroborated by a New York State Health Department investigation around that time -- underline the potential risks that go along with the industry's rapid growth. And the business could soon swell even more if U.S. regulators grant permission to perform the procedure on the nation's bulging ranks of overweight teens.   Continued...

<p>Dr. Neelu Pal poses for a portrait in New York, July 23, 2010. Pal was fired weeks after authorities at New York University Langone Medical Center Surgical Weight Loss Program learned she had contacted patients about the dangers of Lap-Band surgery in January 2006. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton</p>