The story of Dr. Death illustrates how the medical system is failing to protect patients from medical malpractice
Last year a neurosurgeon was sentenced to life in prison after it was found that he committed medical malpractice and butchered 33 of the 37 patients he operated on, including two who didn’t survive. His name is Christopher Duntsch. After he was arrested in Dallas, his story was covered by all the local media who nicknamed him Dr. Death. A few days ago, ProPublica released the result of an in-depth investigation on his story and describes how the case had to be taken to the criminal system because the medical system wasn’t working and patients couldn’t be protected.
After an unsuccessful beginning of a career as a football player, Duntsch decided to become a neurosurgeon. He was able to get his undergraduate degree and to enroll at the University of Tennessee at Memphis College of Medicine to get an M.D. and a P.H.D. During his surgical residency, with a few partners, he launched DiscGenics, a company that was developing and selling disc stem cells.
Duntsch also developed a terrible cocaine habit and had the reputation of being a party animal. He would often do cocaine and alcohol all night and go straight to his residency to the hospital. His partners at DiscGenics worried about it and forced him out of the business.
At the hospital were Duntsch was doing his residency, Dr. Frederick Boop, the chief of neurosurgery received complaints from patients that Duntsch was doing drugs before seeing patients. When asked to take a drug test, he avoided it by disappearing for a few days. He was also put in a program for impaired physicians for the remainder of his training. At the end of a residency, a neurosurgeon is supposed to have operated 1000 times. Duntsch operated fewer than 100 times.
If the medical system was working his neurosurgeon career would have stopped there. But it is not what happened. Thanks to his residency’s chief of neurosurgery and to an investor in DiscGenics who both lied and wrote amazing recommendations despite being fully aware of Duntsch’s issues, he got a job as a practicing physician at the Minimally Invasive Spine Institute in Plano. It included privileges to operate at Baylor Regional Medical Center. He stayed only a few months at the Institute and was kicked out after he left for Vegas while he was supposed to take care of a patient. He however kept his privileges to operate at Baylor-Plano. He butchered the 3 patients he operated on including a friend who was left paralyzed. Doctors who would operate with him were so outraged that they would leave the operating room. The suspicions of drug abuse resurfaced. He was able once again to avoid drug tests ordered by the hospital and after passing a psychological evaluation he was allowed again to operate but only for minor procedures. The next patient bled to death after Duntsch cut a major vessel in her spinal cord.
Egregious medical malpractice not reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank
The hospital decided to kick him out but instead of firing him they allowed him to resign quietly and didn’t even report him to the National Practitioner Data Bank. If they had reported him, the carnage could have stopped at this time. But again the medical system proved it wasn’t working for of the patients. Allowing a doctor to resign instead of firing him and reporting him for medical malpractice is sadly a very common practice among hospitals.
Additionally in Texas, since the medical malpractice damages from lawsuits are capped at $250,000, lawyers are not interested in taking such cases because they are too expensive.
Therefore Duntsch could freely continue his carnage. He was hired by Dallas Medical Center who granted him privileges without any background check. The medical center didn’t even bother to place a phone call to Baylor-Plano officials who could have shared confidential information preventing Duntsch to be hired.
After another patient died a from a botched surgery and another one was left paralyzed, the hospital decided to separate from Duntsch. Again Dallas Medical Center completely failed to raise the alarm on the butcher doctor and let him go with a resignation letter and no notification to the National Practitioner Data Bank.
He finally got reported to the State Medical Board with several doctors finally opening their mouth. However nothing much happened and Duntsch was able to get a new job at Legacy Surgery Center where he cut the vocal cords and one of the arteries of a patient during a surgery.
A neurosurgeon brings in average a $2.4 million yearly revenue to a hospital
After being finally reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank Duntsch was still able to get hired by University General. The hospital had a history of fraud and the reason why Duntsch was hired was economics. Hospitals calculate that a neurosurgeon brings in average a $2.4 million yearly revenue. The hospital is closed now but Duntsch also committed blatant medical malpractice there.
During his time at University General, Duntsch was investigated by the State Medical Board but it took almost a year until things finally moved. A reporter who reached out to the State Medical Board about the investigation helped to finally suspend Duntsch from operating.
Duntsch was suspended but a few doctors who knew about him got concerned that he would be able to operate again. Duntsch had such a personality that whenever he would introduce himself to people he would appear like this bright and friendly guy who knew exactly what he was doing. He was very convincing and would probably be able to get his license back after the suspension.
Therefore, a concerned doctor went to visit the District Attorney convinced that Duntsch’s medical malpractice were so atrocious that they were criminal. That’s how finally Duntsch had his medical license fully revoked and was sentenced to life in jail.
If it took so many patients to get butchered by this man until he was stopped, it is scary to imagine how many bad surgeons are still operating on patients all over the country because the system doesn’t allow patients to know about their doctors and lawsuits outcomes are caped so low that its not sustainable for lawyers to take on cases.
The complete investigation can be found here