Medical panel files charges against former chief of Harborview burn unit
The state medical commission alleges Dr. David Heimbach didn’t disclose his links to flame-retardant manufacturers and misused patient information
Seattle Times science reporter
The state organization that licenses and disciplines doctors filed charges this week against the former chief of Harborview Medical Center’s burn unit, accusing him of unprofessional conduct.
An investigation by the Medical Quality Assurance Commission alleges that Dr. David Heimbach misrepresented himself in legislative testimony as an independent expert, when he actually was a paid consultant for companies that manufacture flame-retardant chemicals.
The administrative charges also accuse Heimbach of relating false stories about burn patients and using a photo of a badly burned infant without her family’s permission.
“They are very, very serious allegations,” said Suzanne Mager, staff attorney for the commission.
Heimbach said Tuesday that he hadn’t yet seen the charges. “I don’t think I did anything wrong,” he added.
The state investigation was launched after stories published by the Chicago Tribune in 2012 revealed Heimbach’s association with the Citizens for Fire Safety Institute. While the group described itself as a coalition of firefighters, doctors, educators and activists, it was in fact created by three chemical manufacturers to fight efforts to limit the use of potentially toxic flame retardants.
Heimbach testified against bills that would have restricted or banned use of the chemicals in Washington, California and Alaska. He did not reveal that he was paid $240,000 by Citizens for Fire Safety, says the statement of charges from the Washington commission.
Heimbach also did not report the outside payments as required under University of Washington ethics rules.
In all three states, Heimbach told stories about infants he claimed to have treated who died from burns. In one version, Heimbach said a crib mattress treated with fire retardants protected one child’s lower body, but that her upper body was left vulnerable by a nontreated pillow.
In 2009, he told California lawmakers it cost taxpayers $500,000 to treat the girl under Medicaid. In a 2011 hearing of the California Senate, he estimated the cost at $1 million.
But the commission’s investigation, which tracked that of the Chicago Tribune, found that all the stories referred to a single case, and that Heimbach did not treat the child himself. Many of the details in his stories were incorrect, including his assertion that she was lying on a pillow. The fire marshal’s report on the accident made no mention of flame-retardant chemicals, says the commission’s statement.
The actual cost to Medicaid for the child’s care was $77,000.
Heimbach has said he altered the story to protect the child’s identity. But he used a photo of the child in scientific presentations without her family’s permission, which the commission says violates privacy laws.
If the charges are upheld, the commission could discipline or censure Heimbach or revoke his license. But Heimbach, who retired from Harborview in 2011, said he now lives in Hawaii and no longer practices medicine in Washington.
Heimbach has until March 31 to respond to the charges, Mager said. The next step would be a hearing before a panel of commissioners.
During the commission’s investigation, 60 prominent surgeons and burn specialists from around the world signed a letter in support of Heimbach, citing his contributions to the field of burn treatment.
“He has been an ally to children with little chance of survival, a mentor to other burn doctors faced with the challenges of an extremely intense vocation, and a ray of hope to the families of burn sufferers,” the letter says.
Sandi Doughton at: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org