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a sinister doctor sitting in a desk holding a syringe

“Dr. Death” May Get You Thinking About Dangerous Doctors

The new Peacock TV show “Dr. Death” may have you thinking about dangerous doctors. How do dangerous doctors fall through the cracks? What’s the difference between a medical malpractice lawsuit and doctors losing their licenses? What are things to look for in choosing a doctor, and what questions should you ask to ensure you don’t end up seeing a Dr. Death?

“Dr. Death” is based on the real-life story of Texas-based surgeon Christopher Duntsch. He was a surgeon sentenced to life in prison in 2017 after maiming and nearly killing more than 36 patients between 2011-2013. It’s believed that his actions directly caused injury and death to these patients. He was allowed to continue practicing during this time due to his stellar reputation, incredible credentials and the slow pace of the Texas Medical Board investigation. Numerous colleagues reported him and tried to stop him from practicing medicine. In June of 2013, his medical license was suspended. By the end of 2013, his license was fully revoked.

Emergency Actions Against Doctors Dropped in 2020

As COVID-19 filled hospitals with patients, some state medical boards took a laissez-faire approach to doctor discipline. Between April and June of 2020, emergency actions about doctors’ licenses dropped nearly 60%. In April alone, emergency license suspensions and restrictions dropped more than 84%. This was according to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which manages the National Practitioners Data Bank. HRSA is part of the Department of Health and Human Services and was designed to improve health care and support medical professionals’ training.

Safety experts share that when a hospital decides a doctor has acted dangerously, they should be prevented from practicing medicine at that hospital. It may be safe to say that the doctor should not be practicing medicine elsewhere. The decrease in emergency license suspensions has safety experts concerned. With many vulnerable patients filling hospitals, errors and complications may increase.

Choosing the Right Doctor

An important step in choosing the right doctor for you or a loved one is to run a background check. As well, spend some time researching the doctor’s credentials to ensure the doctor is competent for providing the appropriate care to you or your loved ones. One great place to start your research is at the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB).

Each state is in charge of issuing licenses to a variety of professionals, including doctors. If your doctor does not have a license in good standing, they should not be practicing medicine. If your doctor is board certified in a specific area, you can verify this information using the American Board of Medical Specialities’ website. Some doctors may be board certified in one area but practicing in another area. 

Investigate Your Doctor For Complaints or Malpractice

If you are concerned about your doctor, you can check their license and disciplinary history. This state-by-state list has links to the licensing board in each state and can help you investigate your doctor. Additionally, you can research to determine if your doctor has any history of disciplinary actions. If you feel you have experienced medical malpractice or a medical error, this list also provides direction on filing a report.

If you are concerned about whether your doctor has complaints lodged against them, consider utilizing the FSMB website. If your doctor has received any complaints, they will be listed here. Another way to check for complaints is to visit doctor review websites, like vitals.com or reviewmds.com. These sites may provide you an overall impression of the doctor’s office, their staff and the doctor’s competency level. Patients and former patients review the doctors on these review websites.

Not all cases of medical malpractice will result in a suspension or having a medical license revoked. Lisa Robin is the chief advocacy officer of the FSMB, which runs a centralized database that alerts state medical boards if one of their doctors has been disciplined in another state. 

“The Disciplinary Alert Service was put in place specifically to prevent someone who had an issue in one state to move undetected to another state,” she shared with Men’s Health. In most cases, the alert service is effective. But doctors can slip through the cracks or take advantage of holes in the reporting system. Some states simply do not check the alert system.

While performing your research, remember that it can take time for complaints and license suspensions to surface. Patient safety advocates argue that it can take years for a doctor to face coincidences of medical malpractice. In some cases, other doctors never get censured in the first place. Part of the problem is the reluctance of colleagues to report negligence or incompetency, shared patient safety expert Robert Wachter, M.D. of the University of California San Francisco with Men’s Health.

Doctor Recommendations

Consulting friends and family while researching a potential doctor is a good idea. Word of mouth is a way to learn additional information if you investigate whether a doctor is a good fit for you. Remember that your friends and family’s experience may not reflect your own. The doctor may be technically excellent but have a poor bedside manner. When seeking a new doctor, look for a doctor who is a balance of technically good, nice and smart with a good bedside manner. Reliable and accessible are also factors to consider.

As you research a healthcare provider, remember that the relationship between you and your doctor is extremely important. Your health and wellbeing hinge on the doctor’s skills, experience and competency. Be confident in your research. Be comfortable with your doctor. If you’re not, know that you have other options available to you. If you’ve conducted good research into your doctor, you can avoid seeing a Dr. Death.