Another poster child for tort “reform”

The Observer asks how well you know your doctor.

In late 2010, Dr. Christopher Duntsch came to Dallas to start a neurosurgery practice. By the time the Texas Medical Board revoked his license in June 2013, Duntsch had left two patients dead and four paralyzed in a series of botched surgeries.

Physicians who complained about Duntsch to the Texas Medical Board and to the hospitals he worked at described his practice in superlative terms. They used phrases like “the worst surgeon I’ve ever seen.” One doctor I spoke with, brought in to repair one of Duntsch’s spinal fusion cases, remarked that it seemed Duntsch had learned everything perfectly just so he could do the opposite. Another doctor compared Duntsch to Hannibal Lecter three times in eight minutes.

When the Medical Board suspended Duntsch’s license, the agency’s spokespeople too seemed shocked.

“It’s a completely egregious case,” Leigh Hopper, then head of communications for the Texas Medical Board, told The Dallas Morning News in June. “We’ve seen neurosurgeons get in trouble but not one such as this, in terms of the number of medical errors in such a short time.”

But the real tragedy of the Christopher Duntsch story is how preventable it was. Over the course of 2012 and 2013, even as the Texas Medical Board and the hospitals he worked with received repeated complaints from a half-dozen doctors and lawyers begging them to take action, Duntsch continued to practice medicine. Doctors brought in to clean up his surgeries decried his “surgical misadventures,” according to hospital records. His mistakes were obvious and well-documented. And still it took the Texas Medical Board more than a year to stop Duntsch—a year in which he kept bringing into the operating room patients who ended up seriously injured or dead.

In Duntsch’s case, we see the weakness of Texas’ unregulated system of health care, a system built to protect doctors and hospitals. And a system in which there’s no way to know for sure if your doctor is dangerous.

Reading this reminded me of another poster boy for tort “reform”, Doctor Eric Scheffey, who plowed a path of death and mayhem a few years ago before finally being stopped. These guys are obviously atypical, but as the Observer story points out, the system we have today has almost no power to do anything about them. The Texas Medical Board’s authority is very limited. Hospitals are not required to disclose the reasons why a particular doctor is no longer employed there, so bad doctors’ bad acts don’t follow them from one place to another. And of course, thanks to our draconian medical malpractice lawsuit limits, the courts no longer serve as a way to get the bad apples out of the barrel. The vast majority of doctors are competent and conscientious, so for most of us it’s not a problem. But for a non-trivial number of unfortunate people – the Observer story documents a few of them – it’s a matter of life and death. And our famously “pro-life” legislature could not care less.

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