In 2003, the Texas legislature implemented scary reforms to medical malpractice law. For instance, damages for pain and suffering are capped at $250,000, and hospitals cannot be sued for malpractice unless they acted with “malice” when credentialing the doctor at issue. Additionally, the laws were changed to allow hospitals to keep doctors’ credentialing records confidential in most cases, making this “malice” requirement even more difficult to prove.
Medical malpractice law not only works as a way to compensate victims of medical negligence, but also more broadly as a check on the healthcare system. With this check significantly disabled in Texas, only the state medical board was left to regulate hospitals and doctors after 2003. However, state medical boards are not intended to aggressively enforce patient safety, and they struggle with the cumbersome process of revoking medical licenses.
This lack of regulation resulted in several patients being seriously injured or killed between 2010 and 2013 after a young doctor came to Dallas to start a neurosurgery practice in late 2010. Shortly after the doctor began practicing, the Texas Medical Board began receiving complaints from patients, other doctors and lawyers about routine surgical errors being committed by the doctor.
One physician who had to fix a surgical error caused by the negligent doctor suggested that the mistakes were so bad that they must’ve been made on purpose, while another compared the doctor to Hannibal Lecter. It took the state medical board more than a year to take away the dangerous doctor’s license and during that time many patients suffered.
In one case, the doctor left a childhood friend paralyzed after slicing an artery during a spinal operation that is not considered very complex. Another doctor assisting with the surgery called the negligent doctor’s work “pathetic.” In another case, a 55-year-old woman was left dead when the doctor again botched a routine spinal surgery.
Ultimately, whether this doctor was negligent or downright malicious in his treatment of patients, one thing is clear: state medical boards aren’t equipped to regulate patient safety. Hopefully, other states recognize this and don’t consider the same type of medical malpractice reform that was adopted by Texas, thereby disabling an important check on the healthcare system.
Source: Texas Observer, “Anatomy of a Tragedy,” Saul Elbein, Aug. 28, 2013