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Penn State Health agrees to suspend kidney transplants for the 2nd time since 2022

FILE - Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center {Photo Provided By Penn State Health}
Photo Provided By Penn State Health
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.

STATE COLLEGE — Penn State Health has agreed to stop performing kidney transplants for two weeks after scrutiny from federal officials. The decision deals another blow to the health system’s attempts to rebuild its abdominal transplant program after it suspended operations in 2022 and faced serious disciplinary action from a national oversight body.

The health system agreed to stop performing liver transplants in late April while the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, which oversees transplants in the U.S., reviews the program.

“We are working to notify patients currently on our kidney transplant list of this decision and will help patients who may wish to transfer to other transplant programs or co-list with another program to do so promptly,” a Penn State Health spokesperson said in an email to Spotlight PA.

The spokesperson did not provide information on the number of patients affected by the decision, nor specify what prompted the inactivation, but said the health system was working with regulators to “review the current organizational structure of our liver and kidney programs.”

The suspension of both programs casts doubt on the success of the health system’s efforts to rebuild them and comes less than two years after OPTN declared Milton S. Hershey Medical Center a “member not in good standing” — the most severe disciplinary action the group had taken against a hospital in more than 15 years.

OPTN restored the hospital’s good standing last December, saying it had addressed the problems.

When Penn State Health suspended its liver transplant program last month, staff were instructed to tell patients that the inactivation was “not uncommon,” according to an internal document obtained by Spotlight PA.

A Penn State Health spokesperson could not be reached by phone or email ahead of publication to respond to questions about the document.

Jason Smith, a heart surgeon at the University of California, San Francisco, who previously served on the OPTN oversight committee for transplant programs, told Spotlight PA that while across the country some transplant programs do occasionally inactivate, an individual program repeatedly shutting down “would be a big red flag.”

“It is my opinion that repeated suspension of transplant activity suggests a deeper problem with the institutional commitment to transplant or that there is a leadership problem that is interfering in the successful maintenance of a transplant program,” Smith said in an email to Spotlight PA clarifying his view.

Under its bylaws, OPTN cannot comment on any potential or ongoing review of a member organization, a spokesperson previously told Spotlight PA.

This is not the first time Penn State Health has suspended liver and kidney transplants. In April 2022, the health system agreed to stop doing the procedures while a “third-party” conducted an “extensive review,” a spokesperson told PennLive at the time.

National data show that the number of kidney transplants performed at Hershey Medical Center dropped significantly after the facility resumed the procedures in 2023. That year, while the hospital rebuilt its transplant waitlist, it performed just one kidney transplant. So far in 2024, five patients have received kidneys. Before the 2022 suspension, the hospital typically performed at least two dozen each year.

In May 2022, an inspection by the state health department found a range of problems with the medical center’s transplant programs, PennLive reported that summer. Inspectors found that staff failed to analyze post-transplant problems for trends, did not notify the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that key staff, including surgeons, had changed, and failed to properly inform some patients of potential surgery complications or that some organs were considered high-risk.

Later that year, OPTN declared the hospital a “member not in good standing,” citing reports of surgical complications, concerns over the kidney and liver transplant programs’ adherence to national requirements, and “a culture of retaliation for reporting potential problems.”

It was the first time since 2006 that OPTN had deemed a hospital “not in good standing.”

The designation is intended to “provide public notice” that a hospital has committed a “serious violation” of the organization’s policies or bylaws, or demonstrated “a serious lapse in patient safety or quality of care,” the organization’s board said.

Penn State Health leaders promised to overhaul kidney and liver transplants and recruited three new surgeons who officials described as “world-class” in a March 2023 news release.

“We voluntarily inactivated our program in April 2022 to improve it, and we’ve since built the abdominal transplant program the people of central Pennsylvania deserve,” Deborah Addo, the health system’s chief operating officer, said at the time.

The health system’s heart, stem cell, and bone marrow transplant programs are not affected by the recent changes.

Wyatt Massey investigates how Penn State University operates, including its influence in the region and state.