8. AMERICA'S DEADLY DOCTORS
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 60,000 -- could 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
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.
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:
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 cover-age 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
"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.
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 of 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.