Journalists must draw attention to the failures in the U.S. medical and legal systems that allowed Christopher Duntsch, the subject of journalist Laura Beil’s well-regarded “Dr. Death” podcast series, to injure dozens of patients, members of an expert panel said at the “10 years after ‘Dr. Death’: Are patients any safer from bad doctors?” panel at Health Journalism 2022 in Austin.
Despite the publicity generated by Beil’s work and that of other journalists about this case, there’s still too little protection for patients against doctors who already have been proven incompetent, said speakers at the April 30 session. Doctors may change hospitals or even states and continue to practice after harming patients, due in large part to a reluctance among physicians and hospital administrators to report harms, they said.
Matt Grant of KXAN Austin presented highlights from his “Still Practicing” series, which looked at how doctors with problematic histories have been able to transfer to new hospitals.
In the website that houses the videos from the series, Grant and colleagues note that February 2022 marked the fifth anniversary of the conviction of Duntsch for injury to an elderly person, which resulted in a life sentence.
Grant and KXAN colleagues pulled thousands of physician disciplinary records from medical boards across the United States. The records were then checked against the Texas Medical Board’s physician portal one name at a time. The KXAN team said they found at least 49 doctors who had disciplinary actions in other states — including having their medical licenses suspended, revoked or surrendered — who were still practicing or able to in Texas. Some of the physicians were repeat offenders with actions in multiple states. Criminal charges previously filed against doctors included ones for driving drunk, domestic violence, possession of a controlled substance and operating a firearm while intoxicated.
These findings highlight the gaps that occur in the monitoring of physicians across the United States, Robert Henderson, a surgeon who sought to have authorities stop Duntsch and reported him to the Texas Medical Board, told KXAN in an interview.
“It isn’t just a state problem,” Henderson told KXAN. “It’s a national problem.”
Grant outlined steps the KXAN team took to look for potentially dangerous doctors allowed to practice in Texas.
- Pulled physician data from state medical boards.
- Ran every name in the Texas Medical Board license lookup portal.
- Confirmed similar names by checking date of birth, medical school and graduation year and practice type.
- Looked for active Texas physician licenses and checked for out-of-state disciplinary actions.
He urged reporters to examine their own state medical boards, in particular, to report on what information is available to the public and what may be kept hidden. Check whether they are posting summaries about cases or more detailed reports, Grant said. He also recommended looking at who gets to serve on the state medical board and noting whether consumers are well represented or if the composition of the board tilts toward doctors.
“Not a whodunit — it’s a whydunit.”
During the Health Journalism panel session, attorney Kay Van Wey credited Beil’s gifted storytelling for drawing attention to Duntsch’s case and generating more interest in protecting the public against harmful doctors.
“Dr. Duntsch was not the first drug-addicted spinal surgeon I ever sued,” Van Wey said, emphasizing the scope of the problem.
A 2018 article in Texas Monthly outlined challenges Beil faced in creating what became a hit podcast. Unlike others such as the popular “Serial,” the “Dr. Death” podcast examined a case in which it seemed at first there was little mystery or suspense. The case was not unsolved or one in which a defendant claimed not to have committed an act. In Duntsch’s case, listeners could — and did — find his fate with a Google search. Instead, Beil created a compelling mystery by focusing on the flaws in the health care system that allowed Duntsch to continue to operate.
“It didn’t take that long to realize that this was not just a story about Christopher Duntsch, but a health care system story,” Beil said in the Texas Monthly article. “It’s not a whodunit — it’s a whydunit.”
Lisa Robin, the chief advocacy officer at the Federation of State Medical Boards, spoke of a need for a “culture change” when it comes to exposing doctors who already have injured patients or are otherwise considered to pose a threat to them. She recommended the FSMB’s DocInfo website as a place where consumers can learn about not only the education and training of physicians, but also check whether they have had past troubles with licensing boards.
“Before you schedule your next check-up, make sure your doctor checks out,” says the website for the FSMB’s consumer-oriented page.
“Thin white line”
In many cases, though, harms done to patients may not always make it into public records or result in judgments due to what Ware Wendell of the nonprofit Texas Watch calls the “thin white line.”
This is a reference to the “thin blue line” slogan used by police officers. This is seen by some in law enforcement as a way to describe people who protect the public from those who commit crimes. But many others see that phrase as shorthand for an attitude among some police officers that makes them violate their oaths to protect the public by failing to report abuses committed by their colleagues.
“Doctors do not like to testify against other doctors,” Wendell said at the panel session. “It’s hard to get a doctor to serve as an expert” in a case against a colleague.
Wendell also encouraged reporters to look at trends that have made it more difficult for consumers to seek justice in the legal system if they are injured by a doctor. Take a close look at efforts by medical organizations to make it more difficult to sue doctors, he said. Be skeptical about claims that medical malpractice costs are driving doctors from the profession.
He recommended two books on this topic:
- ”The Medical Malpractice Myth,”(2005) by Tom Baker, a professor of law and health sciences at the University of Pennsylvania
- ”Medical Malpractice Litigation: How It Works — Why Tort Reform Hasn’t Helped,” (2021) by Bernard Black, a professor at Northwestern University with appointments in law, finance and policy research, and co-authors
The public needs to be made aware of what may be at risk for them in efforts to impose limits on medical malpractice awards, Wendell said.
“We need you to keep digging,” Wendell said. “We need you to keep telling the stories in compelling ways.”
- Laura Beil’s website with link to Dr. Death series
- Beil’s description of the Dr. Death series as part of her AHCJ 2018 contest entry
- True Crime Podcast ‘Dr. Death’ Examines the Tale of a Maniacal Dallas Surgeon, Charles Locke, Texas Monthly, September 25, 2018
- DocInfo website of FSMB’s DocInfo website