The TV series “Dr. Death” is airing on Peacock. It is based on a popular podcast of the same name. The show tells the tragic and true story of a dangerous, incompetent neurosurgeon in Texas who ends up severely injuring and even killing numerous patients. The protagonists are two doctors and a Dallas prosecutor who set out to stop him.
The show makes great drama, but can it happen? Well, it did happen, and this is the scary part. The show is based on a podcast of the same name that examined the real-life events in detail.
The surgeon was Dr. Christopher Duntsch. For much too long of a time, Dr. Duntsch was able to beat the system, avoid detection and keep practicing medicine, maiming and killing along the way.
The show highlights the fact that while there are systems in place to protect the public from bad doctors, people must properly employ these systems.
First, the education and training of physicians is rigorous. Ideally, once a doctor completes medical school, residency, and any additional specialty training, that doctor will have undergone a decade or more of education and training.
In addition, doctors must be licensed in the states in which they practice, having successfully completed necessary testing. State medical boards oversee and regulate doctors, including receiving and adjudicating complaints about doctors.
Doctors must have privileges to practice in hospitals, and hospitals may revoke privileges and otherwise limit the practice doctors who fail to meet appropriate standards.
Lastly, the National Practitioner Data Bank is a federal agency which keeps track of doctors who have settled malpractice cases. The purpose of this agency is to make sure there is a permanent and national record of malpractice settlements to prevent doctors from moving from state to state to evade detection.
What happened in Dr. Duntsch's case? The simple answer is that those persons responsible for regulating this doctor failed to take prompt and decisive action in the face of clear evidence of his danger to the public. This began in his medical training, when he was allowed to advance with less than acceptable work and continued during his practice, when it was easier to simply cut ties with the doctor and let him move to other hospitals, rather than taking the “drastic” step of revocation of his hospital privileges or medical license. This systemic failure had devastating consequences for numerous patients and their families.
Can it happen in Arizona? Yes, if people do not take oversight seriously, it can. Oversight systems only work when the people charged with protecting public safety do their jobs honestly, objectively, and fearlessly.
“Dr. Death” makes for great television, but it is also a stark reminder professional oversight requires true commitment and courage.