9 Investigates: Atrium Health patients left without answers months after potential virus exposure

CHARLOTTE — It’s been months since Channel 9 showed you that patients at Atrium Health were potentially exposed to viruses during medical procedures. Now, more than 100 people in the Charlotte area have come forward, and many say they still have no answers from Atrium Health.

The story first came to light in November. A patient contacted Channel 9 saying he had a urology procedure the year before, but then he got a message from Atrium Health saying he was potentially exposed to Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and HIV. He said Atrium Health told him he was potentially exposed because of equipment not being properly sanitized. Atrium Health told Channel 9 that staffers discovered “certain cleaning and sanitization logs ... were not being accurately kept within a urology practice” at their office on Kenilworth Avenue.


Since that first call, Channel 9′s Hannah Goetz has heard from more than a hundred other patients from Atrium Health Urology Kenilworth who have all been told to get tested for serious diseases. They say they’re scared and desperate to know how this happened, but Atrium Health and the state agency that’s supposed to protect patients have both stopped answering questions.

‘You put a lot of trust in doctors’

Bobby McDougal says the urology office on Kenilworth violated his trust after calling him in November to say he might have been exposed.

“I wanted to ask some questions, then the girl just said, ‘Just go have the test,’” Patty McDougal, Bobby’s wife, told Channel 9. “And I thought, well, tell me what you did wrong. And she wouldn’t answer.”

It was the first of many questions that Bobby’s wife still has. He took a test and it came back positive for Hepatitis B. Now, his doctor has him getting shots just to be safe.

“I don’t know going forward, quite honestly, if I’m not going to have problems. I don’t know enough about Hepatitis B,” Bobby said.

It’s something that he never thought he’d have to learn about at the age of 80. Now, he’s one of more than 100 people who contacted Channel 9 after hearing that Atrium Health Urology Kenilworth failed to document properly cleaning equipment between patients.

“That is just scary because we are at the mercy of everyone in the medical field, and if everyone did it, where would we be?” Patty said.

Atrium Health has repeatedly denied Channel 9′s requests for an on-camera interview, but the company said in a statement that it started contacting patients after an audit found the company failed to properly document cleanings and sanitization of equipment.

We asked Atrium Health what sparked that audit, and the company didn’t answer. However, patients asked the same question.

“Did they say that someone tested positive first and that was the reason for the audit?” Channel 9′s Hannah Goetz asked a patient who wished to remain anonymous.

“Yes, they did,” the patient responded.

‘They’ve had a year to figure this out’

The healthcare company has also refused to say exactly how many patients were potentially exposed to the viruses, and how long this went on before they caught it.

“I was potentially infected on May 4, so it’s been going on for six months prior to my deal, and that just seemed like an awful lot,” one patient told Channel 9.

It seemed that way to us too, so we organized a list of the 103 patients we heard from and tracked the dates of their medical procedures. We found the exposures went back more than a year, to at least September 2021. The company didn’t start notifying patients until October of 2022.

“The only answer I got about what the next step was they don’t know right now, and that’s concerning. Especially since they’ve had over a year to figure this out,” another patient told Channel 9.

The patients say Atrium Health wouldn’t explain what happened in writing, and it was all relayed over the phone. However, some patients later found notes in their medical records citing “exposure to body fluids.”

“And after that, they didn’t answer any more questions,” a patient told Channel 9.

Most of the patients who spoke with us didn’t want to be identified, but they want to make sure the company answered their questions and was held accountable.

“Hopefully enough people and enough voices can be heard to where they can get to the answers and put everybody at ease,” said one patient.

Who’s watching out for patients?

In our own investigation, we wanted to find out whose job it is with the state to investigate something like this, but no one is owning up to that either.

The State Department of Health and Human Services told Channel 9 it doesn’t have regulatory authority. DHHS pointed us to an accreditation agency called the Joint Commission and to the state’s medical board.

The Joint Commission said the Kenilworth urology office isn’t accredited by them. Then, the state’s medical board said it “does not have any jurisdiction over a health system-owned medical practice,” adding that it only has jurisdiction over individual physicians.

So the medical board sent us to another division of DHHS, the division of health service regulation.

DHHS acknowledged to Channel 9 that’s who Atrium Health reported the breach to back in October. But the agency referred all of our other questions back to Atrium Health.

Searching for accountability

Some of the patients have now filed a lawsuit against the company, saying they are “forced to live in uncertainty about their own health.”

“Our goal is to hold them accountable to the standard of care that all patients deserve in these matters, and to do right by our clients as much as possible,” said attorney Blake Abbott.

Two patients got very sick about a month after their procedures at the urology office.

They then tested positive for HIV.

“We didn’t deserve what we’re going through right now,” one of the patients told Channel 9.

“It’s messed up ... we need to go through this for the rest of our life,” one of the patients said.

When the doctor’s office called them a year later to tell them they’d been exposed, they started wondering about a possible connection.

“I was like, well damn, why did they wait a whole year later?” one of the patients said.

Now they’ve spent a year taking medication hoping to get the HIV to undetectable levels. It’s just another example of the uncertainty these patients and their families are facing.

“They made the error, we didn’t,” said Patty McDougal. “And they’re just not doing anything.”

Channel 9 reached out to dozens of patients since the beginning of the year, and they all said Atrium Health did cover the cost of their testing.

Atrium Health has its quarterly meeting Tuesday night, and Channel 9 is hoping to get more answers.

What can patients do in this situation?

According to a professional patient advocate who spoke with Channel 9, it’s hard to get answers without someone who knows the system to fight for you. While Atrium Health still hasn’t said what changes have been made to prevent this issue from happening again, patient advocate Caryn Isaacs says changing the oversight for these procedures would need to come from legislation, which can be difficult to do.

“If one of these senators’ sons was one of these patients, you would have new legislation. Otherwise, who’s going to be the person who really understands what has to be changed to be able to write the legislation?” said Isaacs.

She’s part of the Pulse Center for Patient Safety, Education, and Advocacy -- part of what they do is offer help for patients wanting to learn more about navigating their own health care.

Isaacs says talking to others in a similar situation can help with the stress.

The organization opened a zoom meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, and the topic of discussion is infection control. This story will be used as a baseline for discussions with other patients, doctors, and nurses.

To join the conversation, click this link. The advocacy group meets through Zoom on the second Monday of each month at 7 p.m.

If you have a tip that you would like the 9 Investigates team to look into, you can submit information here.

(WATCH BELOW: Doctor discusses urology sterilization amid possible virus exposures at Atrium Health)

Hannah Goetz

Hannah Goetz, wsoctv.com

Hannah is a reporter for WSOC-TV.

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