This article was originally published on Attorney at Law Magazine.
A Dallas neurosurgeon was sentenced to life in prison in Dallas County. It is extremely rare for a physician to be criminally prosecuted in connection with their medical practice. It is even rarer for a physician to receive a life sentence.
The surgeon in this case is Christopher Duntsch, M.D, or “Dr. Death” as he is named in the iTunes podcast from Wondery Media.
I represented more than a dozen of Dr Duntsch’s former patients. The injuries ranged from severe spinal cord injuries to death, and included surgical hardware placed in the wrong position and/or location as well as patients nearly bleeding to death on the operating table.
The level of carelessness and disregard for patient safety was beyond what many lawyers and doctors had ever seen. The pattern of patient harm was so egregious that physicians in the medical community became actively involved in trying to stop him.
I am prohibited from writing about any specifics pertaining to the civil cases, but there were many things that came out in the criminal trial that are now a matter of public record.
I wanted to sit throughout the entire trial, but duty prevented me from doing so. However, I did attend to listen to the only physician who testified on Dr. Duntsch’s behalf. I was beyond curious to see what physician in their right mind would dare to defend his surgical practices! I was prepared to engage in a verbal outburst if I heard such testimony! However, what I did hear was quite astounding, not because it was news to me, but because no physician to my knowledge had dared to utter these truths under oath in public!
The defense retained expert was a Johns Hopkins trained neurosurgeon who currently practices at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, so he doesn’t lack qualifications.
The defense neurosurgeon took the stand and told the jurors that the “system” was responsible for what happened. He didn’t excuse the conduct of Dr. Duntsch, agreeing with the prosecution that he practiced far below the standard of care. However, he said that we have a systemic problem which sets up an environment for turning out dangerous doctors. He spoke of the residency program Dr. Duntsch was in, which knew he wasn’t safe for patients but they passed him through anyway. He mentioned the various hospitals who knew he was dangerous but failed to report him to the National Practitioner Data Bank and the Medical Board. He talked of the impotence of the Texas Medical Board, who didn’t stop Duntsch until he left a path of bodies in his wake. And, lastly, he told jurors that Dallas has a problem in its spine surgery community. He stated unequivocally that because spine surgery is such a lucrative practice, it is ripe for abuse. Meaning there are shady deals, unnecessary procedures being performed, and doctors being retained who pose a risk to patients.
Alarmingly, he said that the conditions which created Dr. Duntsch still exist, thereby making it possible for another to come along. This should frighten you because all of us are patients who must rely on our health care institutions to look out for our safety before their bottom line.
I would also like to point out that the current laws, made from decades of anti-patient legislation and appellate rulings, arguably make it easier to send a surgeon to prison for life than to hold those responsible liable in a civil suit.
This may anger some of you. It may seem slanted, coming from a plaintiff ’s attorney. But, I urge you to consider how important patient safety is to us all. We will get exactly what we are willing to accept. If we want better health care, we have to say “enough.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t add that I have very high regard for many in the medical and spine surgery community in DFW. We have many talented surgeons who have their patients’ best interest as their highest priority. They would be the first to tell you privately that they are embarrassed and saddened about the way some in their profession are treating patients for the sake of money.
Some think medical malpractice litigation is extinct. It is not. There are a few idiots, like me, who still fight the good fight and we’ll keep fighting until they either ban us completely or we are able to make changes for the better.
Harm from Dr. Duntsch has been stopped, but there is still plenty of work for us to do.
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