When you visit a doctor, you place an immense amount of trust in that relationship. There’s an explicit understanding that your doctor is an expert in their field, and you’re quite literally putting your life in their hands. So to learn that an incompetent or impaired physician was treating you or performing a procedure comes as both a shock and a betrayal.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the relationship that’s harmed in those scenarios. Dangerous doctors put their patients at serious risk and can cause life-altering, even fatal, injuries.
What Is An Impaired Physician?
An impaired physician is one whose medical judgment and technical skill is “impaired” by alcohol, drugs and/or mental illness.
What Are The Chances Of My Doctor Being “Impaired?”
Research shows that nearly 15% of doctors have an alcohol or drug problem at some point in their careers. Even more frighteningly, more than 100,000 medical professionals and health care providers practice under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or both every year.
Is An Impaired Physician Dangerous?
Doctors are people and are susceptible to the same problems that plague others. They may be drawn to alcohol or drugs because of the stress of their work, they could have had an injury that led to a painkiller addiction, or, they may have mental health problems.
However, there simply must be ZERO TOLERANCE for impaired physicians. Doctors must have their wits about them when making life and death decisions or performing critical procedures. Just as we would not knowingly board a bus operated by a drunk driver or board an airplane with a pilot under the influence, we wouldn’t knowingly put our lives in the hands of an impaired doctor. BUT…
How Do You Know If Your Doctor Suffers From An Impairment?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you probably would not know. Unless your doctor stumbled into the exam room smelling of alcohol, with bloodshot eyes, or babbling like a madman, you probably wouldn’t know they were impaired.
Additionally, there is rarely mandatory drug testing for doctors and even if they had been tested this information wouldn’t be available to you. By law, doctors, hospitals and others are able to keep this information a secret from the patient.
It’s difficult to know whether you’re dealing with an impaired physician or nurse because they can often hide their drug use. Many remain high-functioning despite their addictions, so their impairment may not be obvious even to coworkers who see them every day. If they can maintain a professional demeanor, patients may not know whether they’re under the influence of an impaired physician until a dangerous mistake is made.
Signs of an Impaired Physician
Providers who are conscientious about keeping their commitments, not missing work, and covering up the smell of substances such as alcohol or marijuana may be able to prevent colleagues and patients from finding out that they are using on the job.
However, there are some signs of impairment you can look for. If your doctor has bloodshot or watery eyes or seems overly tired, that may be a red flag. A dramatic change in appearance can indicate substance abuse issues, though you may only pick up on this if you see the doctor on a regular basis.
It cannot be up to patients to have to try and discern if their doctor is impaired. We must rely on residency programs, large medical practice groups, hospitals, and medical boards to identify impaired doctors. This is currently not happening, and it is a problem!
Slurred words, shaking hands, and heavy sweating can be symptoms of an impaired physician as well, along with dilated pupils. Of course, if you smell alcohol on your doctor’s breath, you will want to end the appointment as quickly as possible and alert another doctor or administrator in the office.
But, let’s be honest. You may have the greatest doctor in the world who is disheveled, exhausted-looking and not impaired in any way. Conversely, you could have a handsome, suave and “put together” doctor who is completely impaired.
It cannot be up to patients to have to try and discern if their doctor is impaired. We must rely on residency programs, large medical practice groups, hospitals, and medical boards to identify impaired doctors. These groups should keep impaired physicians away from patients until they can affirm the doctor is completely rehabilitated and they can assure patients of their safety. This is currently not happening, and it is a problem!
Dangerous Doctors in the Media
One of the most notable examples of an impaired physician is the case of Dr. Christopher Duntsch, also known as Dr. Death. Dr. Duntsch was a spinal surgeon from the Dallas area who became the first physician in the country to be sentenced to life in prison.
His conviction hinged on one of our clients, a 74-year-old woman who was maimed due to a surgery he botched on her spine. The surgeon was so impaired during her surgery that he misplaced spinal hardware, severed nerve roots, caused massive bleeding and left her with painful and disabling injuries.
But, this wasn’t a one-time occurrence. We represented many of Dr. Duntsch’s former patients who suffered similar tragedies. None of them had any clue he was impaired. They couldn’t know. The people and institutions that are supposed to protect patients knew, though, and they stood by and did nothing to stop him. Throughout Dr. Duntsch’s tenure as a surgeon, two people died and 31 others were injured due to his negligence.
Kay Van Wey discusses the case of Dr. Christopher Duntsch on the Dr. Oz Show.
The victims’ stories are both heartbreaking and horrifying, a fact Kay Van Wey knows intimately because she represented 12 of them. From screws being driven through blood vessels to sponges being left inside patients, the cases are shocking.
Although it’s impossible to say what Duntsch’s motives were for his behaviors, he came across as clearly unhinged in erratic email exchanges with acquaintances and even with Kay. As more information came to light during his trial, it became apparent that he was unfit to be a practicing surgeon and that he should have been stopped long before he was sentenced to prison.
Why Are Impaired Physicians Still Practicing?
Dr. Duntsch’s misdeeds have been brought to light in numerous articles, as well as on the Dr. Oz show and on the Dr. Death podcast. Kay has appeared on both programs to discuss the case and to raise awareness of the very real threat of dangerous, impaired physicians putting patients’ lives at risk.
The big question in cases like that of Dr. Duntsch is how they continue to practice for so long. Why aren’t they suspended and investigated? Why aren’t their hospital privileges revoked?
The unfortunate truth is that, as one doctor serving as a defense witness said during Dr. Duntsch’s trial, the system protects dangerous doctors. Even during his residency program, Dr. Duntsch demonstrated behavior indicating he wasn’t fit to work with patients, yet he was passed through.
The hospitals where he worked did not report him to the National Practitioner Data Bank and the Medical Board. The Texas Medical Board did nothing to prevent Dr. Duntsch from practicing until the victim count began to climb. A neurosurgeon who testified at trial revealed that the spine surgery industry in Dallas is ripe for abusive, unethical behaviors due to the money hospitals and providers stand to gain from these procedures.
Multiple doctors came forward regarding Dr. Duntsch, including one who attempted to try and restrain him during a procedure. However, every regulatory body within the industry effectively sat on their hands when complaints were brought against him, prioritizing his rights – and their fears of being sued – over patients’ safety. It wasn’t until two brave physicians and several victims went to the district attorney’s office that Dr. Duntsch was brought to justice.
How to Find a Good Surgeon or Doctor
Learning that there are physicians like Dr. Duntsch who are criminally negligent or who treat patients while under the influence can be frightening. We all need to see a doctor at some point, and we want to be able to trust that we are getting the best possible care from them. The idea that they might be drunk, high, or mentally unstable is deeply concerning. But there are ways to find a reliable surgeon or doctor.
- Whatever your ailment is, find out how often the physician handles cases like yours. If you need a gastrointestinal procedure, for instance, you want to work with a surgeon who has done that exact surgery many times. The less experience a surgeon has on a given procedure, the greater the risk of error and potentially fatal complications.
- Another dependable way to find a good surgeon is to ask about their success rate, along with statistics on failures and complications. That may feel like an uncomfortable question to ask, but you’re entrusting them with your health and your life, so you want to gather all the pertinent information to make this decision.
- You should also inquire about common complications the surgeon observes. Then, research whether these occur across many practices or whether it seems unique to this provider. Find out about the hospital’s infection rate as well, because post-operation infections can cause dire complications.
- Be sure to verify your surgeon’s credentials before scheduling a procedure. Not only should you ask them directly about their certifications, but you can also make sure they’re up to date by contacting the American Board of Medical Specialties. The Federation of State Medical Boards documents disciplinary actions the surgeon had been subjected to, so inquire about any issues that have come up in the past.
As noted above, this is not a foolproof strategy because many doctors manage to avoid the consequences of their negligent behaviors. However, a disciplinary record can help you identify an impaired physician that you absolutely will not want to work with.
It’s a good idea to consult with more than one surgeon to compare their statistics and their approach to surgery. If one medical professional believes you can do a minimally invasive procedure while another is pushing for a major surgery, you may want to consult a third provider or dig into why their recommendations diverge so drastically. Being able to compare surgeons will help you make a more informed choice about finding the best doctor for you and determining which you believe is more trustworthy.
The big question in caseslike that of Dr. Duntsch is how they continue to practice for so long. Why aren’t they suspended and investigated? Why aren’t their hospital privileges revoked? The unfortunate truth is that the system protects dangerous doctors.
Getting opinions from friends and family is wise as well, although you’ll still want to do your due diligence concerning the doctor’s credentials and safety record. Just because they had a positive experience does not mean the person is a good doctor or that the surgeon’s performance is consistent. Take in as much information as you can so you can catch any potential red flags before you schedule your surgery.
Are You a Victim of a Dangerous Doctor?
If you or a loved one were a victim of an impaired physician and you believe malpractice may have been involved, contact a lawyer as soon as possible. An experienced malpractice attorney will be able to help you determine whether you have a case by examining your documentation, collecting evidence, and meeting with the relevant providers.
However, it’s important to act with urgency because there are many moving parts in malpractice cases. The sooner you speak with a lawyer, the sooner they can determine what documentation they need from you and what evidence may still be available. At Van Wey Law, we bring in independent experts to review medical records and consult on the case as well.
Malpractice cases are both legally and emotionally complex, so we urge victims and their families to consult with a lawyer who is experienced in this field of law. Hospitals and other medical providers retain extensive legal teams, so in an effort to protect your best interests, contact a firm that understands malpractice cases and can best represent you.
Van Wey Law offers free consultations for those who believe they have been victims of medical malpractice, so it’s critical to take the necessary action to protect you and your family.
We are passionate about improving the medical system by holding negligent doctors and hospitals accountable, and we believe in defending victims who have been wronged by the impaired physicians they trusted most.