Most of the time, medical malpractice is a civil matter. It takes something truly extraordinary and awful for a physician to wind up in criminal court due to acts of negligence.
That’s exactly what happened, however, in a case involving a neurosurgeon who earned the nickname “Dr. Death” from victims and prosecutors alike. A true-crime podcast about the case has recently captured the interest of millions — perhaps because it showcases just how badly the American medical system can — and has — failed its patients at every opportunity.
The neurosurgeon, a graduate of the University of Tennessee who went on to practice largely in Texas, was supposed to be performing minimally-invasive back surgeries. In one 18-month period, he ended up severely injuring, crippling or killing 33 of his patients.
Among other acts of negligence, the surgeon severed the nerves in one patient’s spine and screwed improper holes into her spine. A surgeon who was called on to try to treat some patients afterward testified that he didn’t believe the mistakes were accidental. The surgeries were so bad they seemed like they simply had to be intentional acts.
Additional evidence also led the police to believe the doctor’s “mistakes” were deliberate. The surgeon’s legal team claimed that he was simply inexperienced and badly trained — but jurors were not convinced. The doctor was ultimately convicted of injury to an elderly individual and aggravated assault and sentenced to life in prison.
The podcast is helping more people become aware of just how easy it is for terrible doctors to keep treating patients — long after others in the medical profession are aware of the problems. In general, the case pulled back a curtain on the behind-the-scenes mechanics in hospitals that often allow bad doctors to merely resign and move on — their reputations intact. Hospitals would rather have a bad doctor quietly leave than risk the liability that might come along with admitting that the doctor made serious mistakes.
When surgeons commit medical malpractice — whether through acts of ordinary negligence or something more — patients and their survivors suffer greatly. While lawsuits can help families recover financially, it would be far better if such lawsuits were unnecessary — and many could be if hospitals would only put patients first.