Heidelberg doctors ‘bent heart transplant rules’

Prosecutors are investigating the university hospital in Heidelberg over claims that doctors there broke rules to get their patients faster heart transplants.

Heidelberg doctors 'bent heart transplant rules'
A human organ for transplant is carried into a Berlin operating theatre. Photo: DPA

Auditors from the German Doctors' Association (BÄK) found “widespread” irregularities in the transplant system, the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) reported on Thursday.

Prosecutors in the world-famous university town have opened an “investigation into suspicion of attempted grievous bodily harm through manipulation of heart transplant patients' waiting lists,” they told SZ.

They have removed a number of patient files from the hospital and are still working through them to identify suspicious cases.

The hospital confirmed to the SZ that a total of 34 patients who underwent transplants in 2010 and 2011 had “heart transplant reports that didn't completely comply with the guidelines of the BÄZ.”

Doctors are believed to have tampered with patients' files to make them appear more unwell and move them up heart transplant waiting lists.

Now the hospital says it is working with the authorities to clear up the allegations, and has itself filed charges against those responsible.

Irregularities in transplants in Heidelberg are just the latest in a series of cases that have also hit hospitals in Berlin and Munich in recent years.

Doctors bucking the rules

Transplant doctors are often tempted to bend the rules in their patients' favour when the sick don't meet the strict criteria set out by the authorities, Christian Zimmermann, president of the German Patients' Association (APV) told The Local.

“Of course I'm sympathetic to the doctors, but I don't agree with what they've done,” Zimmermann said.

“They depart from the guidelines not out of financial interest, but because they disagree with the rules.

“Instead, they ought to protest and say out loud that they disagree, go to the ethics commission and have a public debate,” he said.

Zimmermann is concerned that repeated scandals over organ transplantation will reduce the number of people willing to donate their tissue after their death.

An official German organ donor card. Photo: DPA

The ethical questions doctors face about which recipients should get priority are never going to be fully resolved – for example, whether young people should come before the old or whether those with 'lifestyle' diseases, like liver cirrhosis caused by alcoholism, should be at the back of the queue.

That's why “there should be a 'corridor' with some margin for doctors to have input into decisions, rather than a rigid set of rules,” Zimmermann said.

At the moment, “doctors are exposing themselves to prosecution for murder or manslaughter, with serious legal consequences, and causing serious doubts among the general public,” he added.

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How the chatty robot Franzi is cheering up German patients

Cleaning robot Franzi makes sure floors are spotless at the Munich hospital where she works, and has taken on a new role during the pandemic: cheering up patients and staff.

How the chatty robot Franzi is cheering up German patients
Franzi at the Munich hospital where she works. Photo: AFP/Christof Stache

“Can you move out the way, please? I need to clean,” trills the robot in German when people block her pre-programmed cleaning route.

“You need to move! I really want to clean!” she squeaks at those who still don't get out of the way. And if that doesn't work, digital tears begin to stream from her LED-light eyes.

“Visitors are not allowed in the pandemic, so Franzi entertains the patients a bit,” says Constance Rettler of Dr. Rettler, the company in charge of cleaning the Neuperlach hospital that provided the robot.

READ ALSO: Small talk with Luna: German robots increasingly in contact with customers

Three times a day, Franzi bustles through the clinic's entrance hall, her feet automatically mopping the floors. Amused patients take photos of her, and some even stop to chat to the metre-high robot.

“Ah, there you are my friend,” cries one elderly lady with a drip on her arm upon catching sight of Franzi.

“One of our recent patients came down three times a day to talk to her,” smiles Tanja Zacherl, who oversees hospital maintenance.

Extra employee

Created by a company in Singapore, Franzi was originally named Ella and spoke English before coming to Munich early this year.

Yet her German is perfect as she tells her interviewers that she “never wants to grow up” and that cleaning is her passion.

When prompted, she can also sing classic German pop songs and even rap.

Franzi on the move. Photo: AFP/Christof Stache

Rettler is adamant that the robot is not taking jobs away from real human beings but instead is supposed to “support” her flesh-and-blood colleagues, who have become harder to come by during the coronavirus pandemic.

“With the pandemic, there is lots of extra disinfecting work to be done in hospitals,” says Rettler.

“While Franzi is cleaning the floors, our employees can concentrate on doing that.”

A robot has its limits however. It is still unable to get into tight
corners, and if it hits an obstacle, it bursts into tears and remains stuck until rescued by a human.

Yet Franzi also has a reason to be cheerful. After a test phase of several weeks, she appears to have settled in at the Neuperlach hospital.

Rettler's company has therefore decided to keep her there permanently rather than deploy her elsewhere.

READ ALSO: How robots could shape Germany's political future