Health & Fitness

Modesto doctor treated preemies. Now, he’s gone after accusations of drinking problem

Doctors Medical Center (10-23-13)
Doctors Medical Center (10-23-13) Modesto Bee

Dr. Frederick Mattson Murphy, a former stalwart for Doctors Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit in Modesto, surrendered his medical license in August following a California Medical Board accusation that he suffered from alcoholism, the Modesto Bee has learned.

Murphy, 61, was under scrutiny for a drinking problem in 2015 when he cut ties with Doctors. A board-appointed psychiatrist, who evaluated the doctor in August 2015, concluded he struggled with alcoholism and that impaired his ability to practice medicine safely.

A Medical Board order said Murphy chose to surrender his license rather than going through the expense of contesting the allegations and agreed the factual basis for the charges could be established at a hearing.

The psychiatrist noted that Murphy continued to drink alcohol despite prior treatment for alcoholism and that placed him at high risk of relapse.

A hospital spokeswoman said Tuesday that Murphy resigned from the Doctors medical staff in October 2015. Spokeswoman Tiffani Burns said the hospital would not discuss the circumstances of Murphy’s departure from the hospital staff. The process for reviewing the conduct of physicians is confidential, Burns said.

For more than 10 years, Murphy cared for premature infants in the hospital’s NICU as a neonatologist. He was a former medical director of the Level III facility, which receives premature infants from San Joaquin Valley counties and the Sierra region.

The Medical Board disciplinary action has become an issue in a lawsuit involving the death of a premature infant in the hospital’s NICU in May 2012 after two other babies were infected with salmonella. Attempts to reach Murphy, who’s a defendant in the lawsuit, were unsuccessful and his attorney did not return messages.

The Bee published a 2006 story on the NICU’s successful efforts, led by Murphy, to save a 13-ounce infant believed to be one of the smallest boys to survive a premature birth. That kind of work earned the doctor praise from grateful parents.

There’s no record of Medical Board action against the doctor prior to the 2015 accusation. Murphy had a drunken driving conviction in 2007 and some details of a struggle with alcohol are found in court documents in his three-year divorce case.

According to those records, Murphy began a leave of absence in January 2011 and spent three months in the Betty Ford Clinic. He was in rehabilitation for four months before resuming his practice.

In a court declaration, Murphy outlined a process for having his privileges reinstated that year at Doctors and Memorial Medical Center of Modesto. He needed to submit letters from his physician and psychologist, stating he was able to resume work, and faced meetings with a physicians committee at each hospital.

According to a summary of a January 2012 court hearing, Murphy testified that he had dealt with “issues of alcohol dependence off and on for many years” and the problem resurfaced in late 2010.

Murphy testified that the rehabilitation programs helped him to overcome feelings of depression and prepared him to return to practice. The therapy at the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage cost him $70,000.

Neither Doctors Medical Center nor Memorial agreed to talk about their policies for physicians with addiction issues. Memorial said Murphy is no longer a medical staff member and the hospital has processes in place to ensure the quality and safety of care rendered to patients.

Cassandra Hockenson, spokeswoman for the Medical Board, said hospitals are required to notify the agency if a physician is placed on probationary status for more than 15 days for substance abuse issues. There is no record Murphy was ever placed on Medical Board probation, the spokeswoman said.

According to an annual report, the Medical Board took action against 43 physicians in California for drug or alcohol problems in 2015-16; 10 had their licenses revoked or surrendered licenses; 30 were placed on probation; and three were reprimanded.

Because alcohol addiction is considered a disease, the Medical Board offers outpatient treatment to some physicians who are placed on probation. They are expected to comply with random testing – urine, blood or hair – from 36 to 104 times a year while on probation. The doctors pay for the treatment.

Hockenson said it’s possible Murphy didn’t wish to comply with terms of probation and opted to surrender his license.

Julie D’Angelo Fellmeth, staff attorney for the Center for Public Interest Law at University of San Diego law school, said substance abuse is a serious problem in the medical profession. Fellmeth conducted one of the audits showing the state’s previous substance abuse diversion program for doctors was a failure. The state scrapped the program in 2008, though a bill has authorized the Medical Board to create a new program.

“At least 10 percent of the general population has a substance abuse problem at some time,” Fellmeth said. “It is higher for doctors and people in really stressful occupations. It can be 15 percent.”

Ongoing lawsuit

Murphy and Doctors Medical Center are defendants in a lawsuit filed by Amil and Kori Ortega of Manteca, charging they acted with oppression, fraud and malice when they did not inform the parents that two other babies in the NICU had been infected with salmonella in April 2012.

In July 2015, a San Joaquin County judge ruled the plaintiffs could seek punitive damages in the lawsuit. Murphy appealed the July 2015 ruling and it could take two years for an appellate court decision.

Matthew Haberkorn, a Redwood City attorney representing the Ortegas, said he asked Murphy about the Medical Board action in a deposition. Haberkorn expects that Murphy’s attorney may provide test results on whether the doctor was abstaining from alcohol in April and May 2012.

An attorney representing Murphy in the case did not return two messages from The Bee.

Haberkorn said the Ortegas’ son was doing well in the NICU for almost four weeks, until he was moved to a room where the salmonella-infected babies had been under care. Three days later, the Ortega baby had loose and watery stools, which should have prompted Murphy to suspect salmonella and have the baby tested, the attorney said.

The baby’s condition deteriorated and the boy died of an intestinal disorder called necrotizing enterocolitis on May 7, 2012. The intestinal disorder is a common cause of death in premature infants and can be caused by bacterial infection.

The hospital later agreed to pay $150,000 to settle with Sheila Vega of Salida whose daughter was in the NICU in April 2012 and survived being infected with the salmonella Newport strain. A second baby tested positive for salmonella Newport, though the hospital suggested the specimen might have been mislabeled.

Haberkorn, citing the California Code of Regulations and summarizing some of the allegations in the lawsuit, said the first infant in the NICU that came down with bloody stools should have been isolated and other babies should have been tested. The parents of other babies in the unit should have been informed to give them the option of moving to another facility.

Haberkorn further alleged in the lawsuit that the hospital covered up the infections in a May 24, 2012, report to the state Department of Public Health. The report, in response to a state investigation, says no other babies with gastrointestinal symptoms had been identified. In fact, the Ortega baby had died from the intestinal disorder more than two weeks earlier and a second infant died from an intestinal hemorrhage May 13, 2012, the attorney said.

“This is fraud on the public and both families,” said Haberkorn, who also filed a suit on behalf of Eleanor Jones and Joseph Garcia of Sonora, the parents of the second child that died. Murphy is not a defendant in the Jones-Garcia lawsuit.

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321, @KenCarlson16