It carries the plot line of a compelling crime story: A knife-wielding assailant works his way into exclusive institutions across a metropolis. There, time after time, he rips into victims, inflicting great pain and suffering. He acts under the noses of people who should know better. He gets stopped only when someone in law enforcement steps beyond norms to bring him to justice. There’s even a systemic flaw that makes the drug abusing criminal’s acts more awful.
It’s painful and tragic, however, that the saga of Christopher Duntsch, aka “Dr. Death,” is all too gory, true, and potentially avoidable. It has become even more public via modern technology, an increasingly popular and free podcast by Laura Beil on the Wondery site.
Duntsch, now serving a life sentence in prison, moved from one hospital to another in Dallas, where the cancer-researcher and neurosurgeon morphed himself into a spinal surgeon. He was awful. Colleagues reported him to hospitals and medical licensing officials. They stepped in front of him in operating suites and took instruments out of his hands during surgeries. Duntsch, D magazine says, abused drugs, partied, and talked about having wild sex often before long, complex operations. There have been reports that he may intentionally have tried to maim patients. His surgeries were tied to deaths.
His rampage, which resulted in legal claims from dozens of mangled patients, might have run longer but Dallas prosecutors took the rare step of filing criminal charges against him. Among the damages he was criminally accused of inflicting: amputating a patient’s spinal nerve, causing paralysis; cutting another patient’s vertebral artery and ignoring the major bleeding that occurred; installing a too-long screw so that it punctured a big vein, causing extensive bleeding and nerve damage; slashing a patient’s esophagus and a neck artery, leaving the man struggling to eat, breathe, and with blood loss to the brain.
He went to trial and was convicted on the charge of injury to an elderly individual, Mary Efurd. She testified that she had trusted Duntsch to perform a 2012 surgery in which Efurd, then 74, lost a third of her blood and the full use of her legs, according to the Dallas News.
Beil, in her series detailing Duntsch’s botched work on dozens of patients, underscores how hospitals took legal sidesteps that allowed a dangerous doctors to keep operating. In this case, other surgeons and others in healthcare waved warning flags and sought to stop him from hurting and killing patients, who already had complex, painful, and disabling conditions.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also how they’re left vulnerable to injury and death due to bad doctors and hospitals by flaws in the law and the unwillingness of practitioners of all different kinds to step up and stop negligence and wrongdoing.
Beil’s first podcast sketches how hospitals, fearing doctor lawsuits, usher dodgy practitioners out the door without really explaining why, allowing them to go elsewhere and cause more havoc. Hospitals also don’t vet as rigorously as might be optimal the doctors to whom they grant coveted and exclusive practice privileges. State medical boards too often slumber through what should be tough, rigorous oversight of MDs, including developing systems to prevent bad doctors from hop-scotching not just from one local hospital to another but also from institutions in one state to another.
In Texas, savvy lawyers are pointing out that so-called “tort reform,” which aimed to increase the number of practicing doctors in the state by imposing medical malpractice caps and purportedly lowering the cost of malpractice insurance, had a lesser known bad effect: It gave hospitals legal protections against lawsuits from patients over doctor credentialing, meaning institutions needed to protect themselves more against MD’s reputation lawsuits than, perhaps, protecting their patients from bad physicians.
Texas’ example should warn other jurisdictions, including lawmakers at the federal level, about advocating for purported “tort reform.” What patients need more — and their doctors, too — is the courage, common sense, and sense of doing the right thing to rid the medical profession of incompetent, reckless, dangerous, and even criminal bad doctors. Physicians and hospitals should lead the way in stepping up to police their ranks — and the public should know that lawyers, including malpractice specialists and prosecutors, and the civil and criminal justice systems are yet another means of protecting them from harm from bad actors.