Most of the instances of medical malpractice I see in my practice are of the unintentional variety. Someone made a mistake that ended up hurting a patient. There is another variety of medical malpractice, however, and my partner and I do see it from time to time. It is the intentional action by a doctor in violation of medical ethics which harms his (it is usually a male doctor) patient. That is what I want to talk about today.
Doctors who are defendants in medical malpractice cases benefit from the fact that the public has a great deal of respect for doctors. Members of the public usually like their own doctor and trust him or her. They usually don’t hear much about bad conduct by doctors and assume, incorrectly, that it only exists in extremely rare cases. Sadly, it is not all that uncommon. One reason the public does not believe this kind of misconduct is common is that it does not get reported to the authorities all that often and is reported in the press even less often. Not all doctors should be respected by the public but the bad ones get the benefit of the doubt created by the good ones.
There are three common forms of intentional ethical violation by doctors and they cover a lot of territory. The first is the improper prescription of dangerous drugs. The most obvious example of this is the doctor who runs a pill mill. The second is improper sexual contact. This can range anywhere from touching to flat out rape of the patient. Last is the unnecessary medical procedure or test. In almost every case, the doctor knows he is acting in violation of ethical rules but does so anyway for some form of monetary or emotional gain. Here is a link to an excellent analysis of cases of serious ethical violations by doctors over an eight year period in the early 2000’s.
There are a number of reasons why these actions by doctors are not reported to the authorities. When the ethical violation is prescribing controlled medications to patients who should not be getting them, the patients receiving the medications are often addicted and looking for drugs. They actively want the doctor to prescribe for them and do not want to do anything to risk the loss of their source. When these doctors are found, it is often because of computer programs that look for patterns of prescriptions. It is reported in the article above that CDC data shows that 62% of prescribed opioids are prescribed by only 3% of all physicians. While there may be other motivations from time to time, such as trading drugs for sex, most of the overprescribing is done for money.
Sexual improprieties with patients are also believed to be substantially underreported. In the first place, it is believed that much sexual assault in the general community is not reported for a whole host of reasons, including shame, fear of disbelief, the desire to avoid publicity and fear of that old tactic of blaming the victim. The factors which discourage the victims of sexual assault from reporting it in the general community apply even more strongly when the sexual predator is a doctor. Even when sexual improprieties by doctors are reported, there may be no action taken. A good example is the Larry Nassar case at Michigan State University. Dr. Nassar sexually abused many young, female gymnasts over decades. Despite repeated complaints, no action was taken for many, many years.
The Nassar case is not an isolated one. The University of Southern California just paid out over $1 billion in settlements to the many young women who were sexually abused by Dr. George Tyndall, a university employed gynecologist. Although abuse by Dr. Tyndall was reported to the university in the early 1990’s, the university did not report Dr. Tyndall to the medical board which allowed him to continue to practice there and abuse women until 2016.
Unnecessary medical procedures are another form of unethical behavior that is substantially underreported. The reasons are obvious. Only in rare cases do patients ever discover that they have been the victims of an unscrupulous surgeon who has performed unnecessary procedures on them. Only when another doctor just happens to review charts of the unethical physician are these matters ever discovered and, even then, the physician may have misrepresented information in the chart to make the treatment or test appear justified. One example of this type of ethical violation was uncovered in Michigan a few years ago when an office manager reported that his oncologist employer had told a number of patients that they had cancer when they did not and had administered chemotherapy to them for the non-existent cancer.
If you believe that you have been the victim of a predatory doctor, don’t just take it in silence. Report it to someone. Studies have shown that behavior like this is rarely a one-time thing. It is usually repetitive behavior and reporting it may prevent others from being victimized. You should also call an experienced medical malpractice lawyer to inquire about your rights and whether you are eligible for a monetary recovery.