Just how difficult can it be to stop a highly credentialed but dangerous doctor from hop-scotching around a metropolitan area to perform brutal spinal surgeries in different hospitals, including a respected academic medical center? Just ask crippled patients, neurosurgeons, medical licensing officials, and prosecutors in Dallas what it took to derail Dr. Christopher Duntsch.
As detailed well in the latest edition of the upscale city magazine D, Duntsch was a high-flying physician who moved from Tennessee to Texas, carrying with him an excellent reputation, which later would be challenged, as a medical scientist. Although established as a cancer stem cell-researcher, the neurosurgeon also morphed himself into a spinal surgeon based on training earlier in his career. He eventually won privileges to operate at three Dallas area hospitals, including the well-regarded Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano, Texas.
He was a loner and boastful, though colleagues liked him at first. They quickly were horrified by his surgeries. Among the damages he is 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.
Duntsch kept moving around Dallas-area hospitals. 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 have been tied to deaths.
Although he and the hospitals that allowed him to operate in their facilities have been sued and the Texas medical board has stripped Duntsch of his license, it took the Dallas District Attorney’s Office to stop him. Prosecutors took the rare step of indicting him for multiple counts of aggravated assault, crimes they say occurred when he operated so badly on patients. As D magazine says about the Duntsch case, which has dragged on several years now:
Nobody stopped him soon enough. The hospitals didn’t do their due diligence until it was too late, and those who could’ve spoken up didn’t. Every patient mentioned in this story who has sued, except for [one], has settled. They all signed nondisclosure agreements that prohibit them from discussing their cases or their monetary awards. As one lawyer [said] off the record, they faced an almost impossible dilemma: settle and give their families a financial cushion for the future medical costs but sacrifice their right to tell their stories.
Duntsch was arrested in Colorado, and sits in a Dallas jail, awaiting criminal trial, now scheduled in January.
I’ve written how rare it is for criminal charges to be filed against a doctor, with the most recent case to receive national attention involving a pill-dispensing California physician. She was convicted of second-degree murder in connection with fatal overdoses of three of her patients. The Duntsch case also echoes a terrible series of spine surgeries in South Dakota involving Allen Sossan, a now disgraced and on the lam osteopath whom 30 patients have accused of maiming them.
I’m angered by the number of bad doctors I have seen in my practice, and I have written how patients need to research their caregivers as if their well-being depended on it. As I’ve said before, doctors and hospitals must do more to rid their ranks of their terrible practitioners. This includes ensuring that bad surgeons don’t elude discipline by moving a few miles down the road. Medical licensing boards also need to act decisively and quickly for patients’ sake. Malpractice lawsuits may provide those harmed with the financial support they will need, as well as justice. When circumstances dictate, it’s good to see prosecutors act in the public good.
It’s also heartening to see a publication like D tackle a topic like a long take-down of a dangerous doctor. The glossy monthly, like many city-focused magazines, might just run lists of trendy restaurants, fashionable night clubs, and expensive shops. In fact, just a month after publishing its annual list of the city’s “best” doctors, it put the Duntsch story on its cover.