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Harbor-UCLA doctor is fired after county finds he regularly gawked at patients’ genitalia

In World
April 20, 2024

A premier L.A. County teaching hospital has fired one of its highest-ranking doctors following a two-year investigation that found he regularly gawked at the genitalia of anesthetized patients and never disclosed that he was being paid by a medical device company whose products he used on patients.

Staff members at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, a public hospital run by the county, told investigators that Dr. Louis Kwong sometimes looked under the surgical covers of Black males who were under anesthesia and discussed the “genitals of the day,” according to his discharge notice, which was obtained by The Times.

Kwong also discussed his favorite sex positions and his preference for “auto-erotic asphyxiation,” his colleagues told investigators.

Additionally, investigators found that Kwong, an orthopedic surgeon, received more than $700,000 from the medical device company Zimmer Biomet, which makes joint replacements, without reporting the conflict of interest to the county. He flew twice on the company’s private plane to its Indiana headquarters with medical residents from the hospital, according to the Feb. 27 notice informing him of his firing.

The discharge notice makes no mention of the gun that Kwong, a volunteer deputy sheriff, had allegedly carried in the operating room and other parts of the hospital, according to a lawsuit filed by colleagues in October. The notice does say that he violated county policy by bringing a personal knife into the operating room on at least one occasion.

“Your inappropriate, disparaging comments and actions were offensive, and created an uncomfortable, hostile, and demoralizing work environment for others,” Griselda Gutierrez, the hospital’s chief medical officer, wrote in the notice.

Much of the misconduct described in the notice had been reported years ago to the county, raising questions about the inaction of hospital leaders. Kwong’s secretary complained more than a decade ago that her boss would remark on the grooming of anesthetized patients’ pubic hair, The Times previously reported. A doctor flagged Kwong’s conflict of interest with Zimmer Biomet to the health department’s chief medical officer in 2016, according to emails reviewed by The Times.

Yet the hospital didn’t launch an investigation until fall 2021, when it said accusations against Kwong were first “officially reported.” Kwong was placed on paid leave the following spring, as Sheppard Mullin, a law firm hired by the county, spent more than two years investigating him.

County policy requires departments in most cases to keep paying an employee who is on leave during an investigation. The slow pace allowed Kwong to receive more than a million dollars without working. In 2023 — a year in which Kwong didn’t work a single day — he was the eighth highest paid county employee, according to salary records posted this month.

Read more: Allegations of sexual harassment, armed surgeon roil top L.A. teaching hospital

Between 2021 and 2023, the county received seven more complaints about Kwong, according to his discharge notice. Harbor-UCLA, which treats largely poor and uninsured patients from around the South Bay, has been on probation since last summer after residents complained to an organization that oversees teaching hospitals of an “unprofessional and toxic work environment” in the orthopedics department, which Kwong chaired. The hospital is one of just six teaching hospitals across the nation that is on probation.

Kwong appealed his firing March 20 to the Civil Service Commission, a county body that can overturn disciplinary decisions. In a letter to the commission, Kwong’s attorney said her client denied or had no recollection of nearly all the allegations of inappropriate conduct and believed he was at risk of becoming the county’s “scapegoat.”

“Dr. Kwong disagrees with the County’s decision to terminate his employment and denies the manufactured allegations against him,” attorney Michelle Finkel Ferber wrote in an email to The Times. “Dr. Kwong looks forward to defeating these sensationalized claims through the appeals process, not in the press.”

Besides his consulting work for Zimmer Biomet, Kwong was dinged by the county for not disclosing his employment with the Lundquist Institute, a private research facility next door to Harbor UCLA. Many Harbor doctors also work as scientists at the institute.

“Zimmer Biomet and Lundquist not only compensated you for your work but provided you with financial incentives for business referrals, which created a clear conflict of interest since the Department had contracts with them,” the notice said. “Your decision to hide your employment with these companies for 6 years demonstrates your propensity for dishonesty.”

In a letter appealing Kwong’s discharge, Ferber said her client was never compensated by the Lundquist Institute, and there was no “intent to conceal the relationship with Zimmer Biomet.” The lack of disclosure was based on a misunderstanding of county policy, the attorney wrote.

The letter also stated that Kwong preferred Zimmer Biomet devices over other implants “based on their clinical record and performance outcomes.”

“Kwong’s decisions regarding implant choice are governed by what is best for addressing the patient’s reconstruction needs,” the letter said.

Some doctors say Kwong’s affiliation with both the Lundquist Institute and Zimmer Biomet was hardly a secret. Until recently, a Google search for “Dr. Louis Kwong” brought up his page on the Lundquist Institute’s site as one of the first results. Kwong was also listed as an “affiliate doctor” on Zimmer Biomet’s website, according to the discharge notice.

The Lundquist Institute has since taken down Kwong’s page. The Times could no longer find Kwong on Zimmer Biomet’s website.

According to the discharge notice, the county’s internal investigators began examining Kwong’s relationship with Zimmer Biomet after a complaint in 2021. But emails obtained by The Times show the issue was flagged for the county five years earlier.

On July 26, 2016, Tim Ryan, a former doctor with Harbor-UCLA who has since sued the county, emailed several colleagues screenshots from ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs portal, which shows payments disclosed by medical device companies to doctors.

Ryan sent entries for several county doctors, including Kwong, whose showed he had received payments from Zimmer Biomet.

Ryan’s email was forwarded to Hal Yee, chief medical officer for the Department of Health Services.

“Let’s discuss,” Yee responded. “I am concerned about both [conflict of interest] and failure to disclose.”

The Department of Health Services did not immediately respond to questions about the steps it took to follow up.

Two years later, Kwong posted a photo on his Facebook page of himself and his residents in front of a small plane, writing that he was on his way to Warsaw, Ind., where Zimmer Biomet is headquartered.

The same image was later posted on a bulletin board at Harbor, according to a photo of the board viewed by The Times.

Harbor-UCLA Medical Center

Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, which acts as a safety net for poor and uninsured patients from around the South Bay, has been on probation since last summer. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

After joining the county in 2007, Kwong ascended through the orthopedic department, nabbing the plum assignments of department chair and program director for residents. He received glowing performance reviews his last two years on the job, according to his discharge notice, with evaluators noting that he had “far exceeded expectations.”

But his rise was dogged by complaints that often went ignored.

In 2013, Maria Garibay, then a medical secretary, told the county’s human resources department that Kwong would have discussions with his staff about the women he operated on and “the variations in which they groom their pubic areas.” In 2019, a medical student accused Kwong of entering an operating room to peek “under the hood” and look at a patient’s genitalia. The comments, posted on a site used to rate orthopedic programs, were flagged for the hospital’s director of risk management, who responded that they had “started working on this.”

Some doctors say the 10-year delay in addressing complaints not only put the hospital in jeopardy but allowed a culture rife with racism and inappropriate behavior to fester.

According to Kwong’s discharge notice, three people told investigators that residents referred to Black patients as BAP, which reportedly stood for “Black Angry Patients.” Two doctors stated that Kwong compared two Black residency candidates as “brother versus brother.” During a meeting, a resident stated that a Black candidate “looked like he raped cheerleaders,” the notice stated. Another doctor used a racial slur in a text message.

The notice also paints a picture of a department with a locker-room atmosphere, where Kwong and some of his staff were fixated on the genitalia of patients.

Male genitalia were shown at an annual end-of-year “roast,” a doctor told investigators, where it “was commented that certain female residents like it on top.”

A technician once told the surgical team to “check out” an anesthetized patient’s penis because it was “very large,” leading Kwong to lift the surgical drapes, the notice said. A doctor heard Kwong discuss whether a patient was a “grower or shower,” and a physician assistant said Kwong joked about looking at genitalia of Black male patients while they slept.

Staff also told investigators that Kwong compared conducting a hip replacement to “finding the ‘G-spot,’ ” made a sexual innuendo about “hammering a patient” and commented on the fat rolls of female patients.

Some of these allegations about the orthopedics department burst into public view last year after three doctors sued the county, saying they were tired of watching complaints against Kwong stall.

Jennifer Hsu, one of the three doctors, said she had been told nothing about Kwong’s departure despite sitting for hours in interviews with investigators.

“They’ve been extremely opaque — it appears deliberately so,” she said.

The Department of Health Services declined to answer questions about Kwong — including whether he was given a severance payment or could receive a pension — and would confirm only that he no longer worked with the county. The department said in a statement that it could not comment on personnel matters but that Harbor-UCLA has “zero tolerance” for misconduct by staff.

“We have established clear channels for reporting allegations of misconduct so they can be thoroughly investigated,” the department said. “We wish to express our gratitude to those who utilized this process to bring their concerns to our attention.”

To Garibay, the statement rings hollow. In the aftermath of her 2013 complaint, she said, she was transferred to a different office, away from Kwong.

“They just brushed everything underneath the carpet,” she said. “I want everyone to know how dirty the county did me.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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