8. America’s Deadly Doctors

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Source: WOMAN’S DAY, Date: 10/12/93, Title: “Deadly Doctors” Author: Sue Browder

SYNOPSIS: The trust Americans put into their doctors may be sorely misplaced. According to estimates, five percent to 10 percent of doc­tors-some 30,000 to 60,000­could be hazardous to your health. A study by Public Citizen’s Health Research Group concluded that medical negligence in hospitals alone injures or kills 150,000 to 300,000 Americans each year. Experts cite two major reasons why some doctors are dangerous: They’ve become physically or men­tally impaired, or they were poorly trained or incompetent to start with.

Charles Inlander, president of the People’s Medical Society, said that impairment is the number one reason doctors are dangerous.

Impairment takes many forms including alcoholism (10 percent of all physicians) and drug addiction (three percent), which accounts for some 78,000 doctors nationwide. Another impairment is mental ill­ness; a 1989 New Jersey report on incompetent physicians revealed that one percent, or about 6,000 doctors, are mentally unbalanced. Senility is another problem with many doctors continuing to prac­tice after growing too old to do so. A final reason is ignorance-doc­tors, who are otherwise mentally and physically healthy, may fail to keep up with medical research.

The second main reason doctors can be deadly is simple incompe­tence and poor training.

Students who could not qualify for admission to American medical schools often attend unaccredited schools in the Caribbean. “A school in the Dominican Republic was selling medical degrees several years ago,” said Dale Breaden, asso­ciate executive vice president of the Federation of State Medical Boards. Sometimes those who can’t get a medical license simply prac­tice without one or use a fraudu­lent degree. Some doctors also lack the appropriate skills when they practice beyond their area of exper­tise. Finally, there are doctors who are driven by greed. One New Jersey doctor did so many needless surgeries he lost his malpractice insurance, yet he kept treating patients.

So, why aren’t these deadly doc­tors stopped? According to Arthur Levin, director of the Center for Medical Consumers, thousands of doctors who have lost their licenses or gotten in trouble for being drug addicted, senile, or otherwise incompetent simply move across state lines. Others just continue to practice without a license. Also, state medical boards set up to police bad doctors offer far too little protection. A survey by the Health Research Group indicated that only 3,034 disciplinary actions were taken against some 585,000 doctors in 1991. State medical boards move at such a slow pace that even after abuses have been proven in court, hearings on lifting a doctor’s license can drag on for years. Bad doctors also stay in busi­ness because their colleagues refuse to expose them.

Ultimately, however, the lack of media coverage on the misconduct of doctors is a major reason deadly doctors continue to take their toll on a trusting American public.

SSU Student Researcher: Laurie Turner

COMMENTS: Sue Browder, a freelance magazine journalist and author of the article in Woman’s Day, feels that the issue of deadly doctors in America never has received the mass media exposure it deserves. “National magazines frequently shy from the topic (per­haps for fear they’ll be sued),” Browder said, “whereas daily news­papers tend to report such stories only after an injured patient has just won a multi-million dollar law­suit and the damage has been done. The Hartford Courant did a fine reporting job once it became publicly known that Dr. Steven Weber had given one Connecticut woman an abortion without her knowledge. But no stories were done on Weber before he com­mitted this atrocity-even though he had lost his license in New York the previous year for his inept care of 10 other women. The Boston Globe’s New Hampshire edition also covered the Dr. Stephen Dell case after Dell’s license had been temporarily suspended in New Hampshire. Yet the investigating reporter could not persuade the Globe to publish the story in their Boston edition, even though Dr. Dell was still practicing on-and possibly hurting-people in Massachusetts.”

“It’s not that this subject needs wider exposure so much as it needs earlier exposure,” Browder con­tinued. “Since deadly doctors who have lost their licenses in one state often simply move across state lines, reporters need to keep a closer eye on doctors coming into their states and keep checking their track records. Since this is such a vital public health issue, we need more stories exposing dangerous doctors before they hurt or kill innocent people.”

Browder believes it is not just the interests of the American Medical Association that benefit from the limited coverage given this issue. “But the whole medical establishment benefits by keeping this issue under wraps. Politicians and lawmakers also benefit: when stories about deadly doctors contin­ually get swept under the rug, the public knows too little about the hazards to demand reform.”

Although Browder has repeat­edly tried to get articles about dan­gerous doctors published during her 20-years-experience as a free­lance magazine journalist, she has had only limited success.

“Many of my magazine markets want only `upbeat, happy’ stories – that won’t disturb their readers. And even those willing to tackle more serious subjects often seem to regard doctors as sacred cows too highly respected to criticize.

“I once wrote a story about a Connecticut `psychologist’ (he claimed to be licensed when he was not) who had had sex with several of his patients. He claimed to have graduated from Yale (again, he had not) and was guilty of countless other deceptions. I had the guy lying to me on tape, I had several of his victims willing to talk, and I even had written proof that he’d lied about his credentials. Yet the editors at the magazine for which I was freelancing at the time killed the story because it was too ‘con­troversial’ (translation: the doctor had a lot of money and a team of lawyers, and the editors didn’t want to publish anything they might have to defend in court).

“Just as doctors refuse to blow the whistle on inept colleagues because they don’t want to ruin a friend’s career or fear they’ll be sued for slander, I think the media often shy from this subject because they fear doctors’ clout. As a result, the public suffers. Certainly, Woman’s Day deserves a great deal of credit for suggesting that I write this story and for backing me so completely throughout my investi­gation.”

In November, the Public Citizen’s Health Research Group released the third edition of its listing of doctors who have been sanctioned by state medical boards of the federal government.

The latest data cites 10,289 questionable doctors who have been disciplined a total of 14,574 times by state and federal govern­ment agencies-an increase o f 3,453 new doctors from the prior study released more than two years earlier. The reasons for the actions against the doctors include at least 1,346 criminal convictions, 1,130 instances of over-prescribing or mis­prescribing of drugs, 1,070 cases of substandard care or negligence, 817 instances of alcohol or drug abuse, and 173 instances of sexual abuse of or sexual misconduct with a patient, including rape.