The Dark Side of Malpractice — Cause to Pause

While nearly all physicians intend to help, to cure, and do no harm, we must afford an honest look at those few exceptions which cause the rest to endure high Professional Malpractice costs.  Perhaps in examining them, we’ll have taken the first step in a meaningful change that amounts to reformation.  The sad truth is that there is merit, in some 25% of the lawsuits.  Then there are these Dark Side cases, that will likely make most of us gasp.

This nation is awash with prisons, both public and private owned.  The U.S. has more people incarcerated than any other nation in the world.  Even China, with four times our population, has only 18% as many people in jails.  Approximately 1 percent of our population is in jail — 2.3 million people at the start of 2008 (two-thirds of which are incarcerated for drug offenses.)  That’s quite a population to feed, house and care for – and quite a population to provide any form of healthcare for.  Our prison systems have an abysmal record of abuses of patients.   Take a guess at who they find to act as physician in a prison?

One of those “doctors” was Joseph Durante, who died on March 13, 2009, at 80 years of age.  Although this man had a long history of malpractice against women that included performing late term abortions, delivering live babies and calling them dead (and incinerating the evidence,) he continued to hold a valid license.  Durante received probation a number of times, amongst reprimands.  In 1996, Durante was reprimanded — another five years of probation — for his negligence in the case of an infant who survived the abortion in San Diego. That same year, Riverside County hired Durante to be its doctor for women in jail.   A fly-in doctor, Bruce Steir, working for Durante was even worse. Steir was under disciplinary control of the Medical Board at the time, but performed abortions for Durante “under the radar” despite that action. Sharon Hamptlon, a young mother, was his victim. Although Steir knew that he’d perforated her uterus, he left her side to catch a flight back to San Francisco.  Ms. Hamptlon died on her way home, in the back seat of her mother’s car.  Steir was subsequently convicted of manslaughter and served time in prison.  Durante would continues his decades of malpractice, one five-year probation after another.  During the last several years, Durante supplemented his income by acting as a referral doctor authorized to prescribe Medical marijuana.  Even as late as 2008, he was trying to evade a legitimate malpractice award by putting his home, valued at nearly half a million dollars, in his girlfriend’s name.  It’s telling that his surviving family asked for donations to the humane society in lieu of flowers.

Pogo wrote “What we permit, we allow.”  This article just lists a couple of the exceptions which have arisen over the years.  Other medical professionals have worked with these “doctors.”  In 1981, after the live-born baby was declared dead and incinerated, Durante’s staff and the hospital he worked at, refused to do abortions anymore.  It’s no surprise that he often did not carry malpractice insurance.  Yet this man continued to have a license through his death. a few days ago.  

As we work to improve and streamline the costs of healthcare, we must also take a good hard look and police ourselves.  Too much is covered up, considered Damage Control after the fact.  While we’re about a reformation, it’s time and then some that we did a major, healthy housecleaning.  Most of us can’t imagine how some of these “doctors” continued to have a license.  They’re a disgusting embarrassment to the profession, and should have been weeded out by the medical boards.  Their victims –er, patients — pay the ultimate price, but we all foot the bill for their wanton abandon of every last principle.  

When we hear of frivolous malpractice cases, the injustice disturbs us.  When we think of the myriad ways a well-intending physician has to cover himself and his practice, it’s clearly an overwhelming burden that keeps him from the real job of tending to patients.  In light of this Dark Side, though, we can see how the right to sue such “doctors” for malpractice is no more than society doing what the Medical profession refused to do.  

This should give us cause to pause.  Re-forming our own ranks, policing our own, is an important step in giving this system the overhaul it needs.  Perhaps while President Obama works towards transparency in our government, we should be wiping the windows of our house clean as well.

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