Quackery of a different kind than I usually write about

I've spent a lot of time on this blog discussing failures of the medical system. Usually, such discussions occur in the context of how unscientific practices and even outright quackery have managed to infiltrate what should be science=based medicine (SBM) in the form of so-called "complementary and alternative medicine" (CAM) or "integrative medicine," in which the quackery of alternative medicine is "integrated" with SBM. However, as big a problem as the infiltration of unscientific CAM practices into medicine is, there is a threat at least as grave here in the U.S. (and, I presume, in many places in the world). What I am referring to is the utter ineffectiveness of most state medical boards in reining in quackery and bad physician behavior that endangers patients. A recent story about a prominent Detroit area oncologist named Farid Fata, MD who has been arrested and charged with administering unnecessary chemotherapy and of diagnosing patients with cancer who turned out not to have cancer in order to defraud Medicare has led me to think that now might be a good time to revisit this issue. Then I heard about an Ohio spine surgeon indicted for performing unnecessary surgeries to defraud insurance companies, and I knew that now is a good time to revisit the issue.

I've discussed this issue before with respect to various practitioners over the years. One that comes to mind immediately is Dr. Rolando Arafiles at the Winkler County County Memorial Hospital in Kermit, TX. Basically, a CAM-friendly physician was practicing substandard medicine, and two nurses reported him anonymously to the Texas Medical Board. Because Dr. Arafiles was a business partner with Winkler County Sheriff Robert Roberts, who left no stone unturned to discover who had complained about his good buddy, leading to the prosecution of the two whistleblowing nurses for violation of patient privacy, even though Texas law explicitly said that using patient information to report substandard care is not a violation of patient privacy. The entire medical establishment seemed to be trying to come down on the two brave nurses like the proverbial ton of bricks. Ultimately, the Texas Medical Board did the right thing, but it took a long time, and two responsible nurses who couldn't bear seeing Dr. Arafiles continue to betray patient trust. There are many other examples, such as that of Dr. Rashid Buttar, a North Carolina doctor known for using "alternative" treatments for autism and cancer who got off with a slap on the wrist for some truly horrendous violations of the standard of care.

And don't even get me started on the utter failure of the Texas Medical Board to put a stop to Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski's unethical abuse of clinical trials and use of an unproven cancer drug over 36 years or on how it took decades to finally put a stop to Dr. Mark Geier's autism quackery in the United States. So what about these recent cases have in common? It's that they were both busted by the feds. The relevant state medical boards in Michigan and Ohio (both states in which I hold a medical license) did not detect the medical misadventures and did, as far as I can tell, basically nothing to stop it.

Farid Fata, MD

To all appearances, prior to his arrest and indictment last week, Dr. Farid Fata was a hugely successful oncologist and businessman with impeccable medical credentials. According to his practice's website, after graduating from Lebanese University in 1992, he went to medical school at Cornell Medical College, did an internal medicine residency at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY, and then completed a medical oncology fellowship at one of the premier cancer centers in the world, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In 2005, Dr. Fata founded Michigan Hematology Oncology (MHO), which rapidly grew to seven locations with 60 employees throughout some of the more affluent northern suburbs of Detroit. In addition, Dr. Fata has published 20 articles indexed on PubMed for which he is primary or co-author and has widely lectured at local hospitals. He's a member of the usual list of medical organizations, including the American College of Physicians, American Medical Association, American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), and American Society of Hematology (ASH), plus the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Alumni Association, and Hour Detroit Magazine named him one of the "Top Docs" in oncology in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2012.

So how did it all go so very wrong? What is Dr. Fata accused of doing? For that, I have to reference some local news stories, such as this one from WXYZ-TV:

And this story from WDIV-TV:

In this story, perhaps the most shocking example of patient mistreatment is the the man who had head and neck cancer and was treated inappropriately with chemotherapy while receiving radiation, leaving him disfigured. Perhaps the most useful way for me (and perhaps for you) to understand the full scope of the charges is to peruse a summary published on Medscape on Friday, the actual criminal complaint against Dr. Fata, and the memorandum in support of detention that characterizes Dr. Fata as a flight risk and asks the court to keep him in custody until trial. There are dozens of examples of wrongdoing described, and the activities of which Dr. Fata is accused fall into these general categories:

  1. Administration of unnecessary chemotherapy to patients in remission
  2. Deliberate misdiagnosis of patients as having cancer to justify unnecessary cancer treatment
  3. Administration of chemotherapy to end-of-life patients who will not benefit from the treatment
  4. Deliberate misdiagnosis of patients without cancer to justify expensive testing
  5. Fabrication of other diagnoses such as anemia and fatigue to justify unnecessary hematology treatments
  6. Distribution of controlled substances to patient without medical necessity

The details of the allegations, obtained from various employee whistleblowers, range from the mundane to the truly horrific, and the amount of money involved is truly staggering, $35 million. Some of the mundane examples include charges such as this:

68. The unlicensed doctors are generally assigned to examine Dr. Fata's patients and complete write-ups of their exam. Dr. Fata typically sees his patients for only a few minutes at the end of their typical 2-4 hour visit to the clinic. The rest of the patients' time is spent with the unlicensed doctors and other MHO staff. This arrangement allows FAta to routinely see between 50-70 patients per day while other doctors in his practice see between 5 and 10.

Not to mention upcoding the billing to collect as much money as possible from Medicare. The general pattern in the complaints is that Dr. Fata would see large numbers of patients per day but bill every patient at the highest possible billing code, even though he spent only 3-5 minutes with each patient. For those of you not in the medical field, there are generally five levels of patient visits for billing purposes, from quick visits designed to look at one problem to highly complex visits that take over an hour. Upcoding visits (billing for a higher level visit than is justified by what was actually done at the visit) is common, and not all of it is with nefarious intent, mainly because the billing guidelines are confusing and complex. However, when a physician consistently bills at the highest levels for every patient, there's no way that's anything but intentional:

79. Dr. Fata typically sees 30-60 patients in a single day. Because of the volume, unlicensed doctors and nurse practitioners divide up his load, examine the patients, and create courses of treatment. Dr. Fata see the patients for a cursory exam and often changes the course of treatment. EE-6 [one of the whistleblower employees] believes he bills the two highest level office visit codes under his own number.

The only thing that puzzles me here is how Dr. Fata could possibly have gotten away with this over so many years, if he is in fact found guilty. Medicare pays very close attention to the percentage of patients billed at each level. If a physician bills for every patient at level 4 or 5, that's a huge red flag.

Another mundane charge against Dr. Fata is that he ran a self-referral setup with an imaging company that he owned, much the same way that Stanislaw Burzynski required his patients to get their chemotherapy from a pharmacy that he owned:

81. According to EE-7, Dr. Fata opened a company known as United Diagnostics to perform medical testing. Since he opened United Diagnostics, the percentage of patients in his practice receiving PET scans she estimates has increased from 30% to 70%.

Another whistleblower reported:

64. EE-1 advised that all patients referred to MHO, even those referred only for hematology issues, are prescribed PET scans and blood tests. EE-1 advised that two MHO medical assistants questioned him about the practice of giving all patients PET scans, even those referred only for anemia or other hematology issues.

One notes that Dr. Fata also had a relationship with a pharmacy that he always liked to use for his patients when he prescribed oral chemotherapy agents. Indeed, in the criminal complaint Up until now, these charges are basically charges of running your standard Medicare scam, in which inflated bills are submitted for services rendered and there are incestuous relationships between imaging centers and pharmacies and the physician's practice. This sort of thing is sadly all too common. However, such shenanigans, although they are designed to enrich the doctors who run them and frequently lead to overuse of of services, don't necessarily grossly endanger patients (at least not all the time), as it's quite possible that the pharmacies involved can be qualified and that the imaging center provides quality imaging. If this were all that Dr. Fata were charged with and ultimately convicted of, he'd be a greedy bastard but not the monster he is accused of being. The charges go far beyond his being just a greedy bastard, though.

If the federal charges are correct, where Dr. Fata took it to the "next level" was in the brazenness and callousness of it all. His practices, the feds charge, grossly endangered and injured patients. For instance, in the complaint we learn that he appears to have been the living embodiment of an old (and rather offensive) joke about oncologists that goes something like this. Why do they nail the coffins of cancer patients shut? So that the oncologist won't keep trying to give them chemotherapy. Sadly, with Dr. Fata, that old joke appears not to have been (much of) an exaggeration:

46. In two instances, Dr. Fata directed that chemotherapy be administered to patients who had other serious medical conditions that required immediate treatment before he would permit them to go to the hospital.

47. In one instance, a mail patient fell down and hit his head when he came to MHO. Dr. Fata directed EE-4 that he must receive his chemotherapy before he could be taken to the emergency room. MHO administered the chemotherapy, after which the patient was taken to the emergency room. The patient later died from his head injury.

48. In the second instance, a patient came to MHO with extremely low sodium levels, which can be fatal. Dr. Fata again directed that the patient must first receive chemotherapy before being taken to the emergency room. MHO administered the chemotherapy and the patient was taken to the emergency room and hospitalized.

Consistent with the case above and that horrible old joke, Dr. Fata is accused of administering chemotherapy to patients with late stage and terminal cancer who could not conceivably have benefited from the treatment. For such patients and, of course, for patients who don't have cancer in the first place, chemotherapy can only cause harm because, depending on the specific regimen, it's very toxic.

Other charges against Dr. Fata's include ordering chemotherapy inappropriately for patients in remission and falsifying cancer diagnoses:

42. In addition, Dr. Fata falsifies cancer diagnoses to justify cancer treatments. Where a test falls in a "grey" area, he will diagnose cancer in order to start cancer treatment. EE-4 explains that it is easier for the doctor to do this for blood cancers, where the doctor has more discretion to interpret blood test results vs. tumors, for which is is harder to falsify diagnoses.

One of the whistleblowers quit because Dr. Fata had instructed her to falsify cancer diagnoses in order to justify ordering PET scans. While he was in the process of opening his imaging center, Dr. Fata also allegedly delayed PET scans that were actually medically indicated so that he could have them done at his new facility. He was also reported to become quite angry when his staff failed to follow through on these instructions.

As for chemotherapy, Dr. Fata is accused of not just of ordering it inappropriately for patients who had urgent medical conditions requiring attention before any conceivable need to give chemotherapy or for patients at the ends of their lives, but he is accused of ordering it inappropriately for many other reasons and, even when the chemotherapy was indicated, prescribing too much of it. For example, he is accused of routinely ordering "maintenance" chemotherapy for patients who did not need it. Indeed, medical assistant quoted Dr. Fata as telling patients that once they had chemotherapy, "they had to have it for the rest of their lives," which is utterly unnecessary for nearly all cancers. That's how he is thought to have racked up nearly $25 million worth of chemotherapy charges over the last couple of years. Finally, one offense that I hadn't thought of before but that I came across in an article yesterday is that Dr. Fata wasted chemotherapy drugs on people who didn't need them, harming those people, but also potentially denying those drugs to people who could benefit from them. There have been shortages of certain drugs, and one wonders how much of these drugs could have helped other people. Causing harm both to the patient through unnecessary treatment and to others through potentially making it harder for them to get the drugs they need is a double whammy on Michigan cancer patients.

Again, if these charges hold up, not only did Dr. Fata commit Medicare fraud (which is the least of the charges against him, as far as I'm concerned), he betrayed, endangered, and injured his patients. He betrayed the trust and enormous privilege given to him as a physician by society, all for money, all at enormous cost to his patients and society. Already, stories are coming out of patients who died under Dr. Fata's care whose families are now not sure whether they actually had cancer and died of chemotherapy complications or whether they died of their cancers. Hundreds of patients currently under treatment now don't know where to go.

Abubakar Atiq Durrani, MD

Abubakar Atiq Durrani, MD is a spine surgeon in the Cincinnati area who, if federal authorities are correct, suffers a similar lack of ethics as Dr. Fata. Instead of administering unnecessary chemotherapy to patients, Dr. Durrani is accused of doing unnecessary surgeries on patients through his private practice, Center for Advanced Spine Technologies (CAST), all to bill insurance companies and Medicare:

A federal grand jury indicted Abubakar Atiq Durrani on Wednesday on five counts of health care fraud and five counts of making false statements in health care matters, according to prosecutors.

Durrani’s fraud scheme resulted in serious injuries in some cases, with many patients treated by Durrani for back and neck pain left in worse pain because of unnecessary surgery, the indictment states. Durrani also would tell some patients the medical situation was urgent and that back surgery was needed immediately, according to the indictment.

“For cervical spine patients, Durrani would often tell a patient that there was a risk of paralysis or the head would fall off if the patient was in a car accident because there was almost noting attaching the head to the patient’s body,” the indictment states.

Dr. Durrani collected over $10 million from Medicare and private insurers for services rendered. Earlier this year, 88 of Dr. Durrani's former patients sued him for doing "criminal ... medically unnecessary, experimental spine surgeries" without informed consent in order to sell Infuse Bone Graft for Medtronic, for which Dr. Duranni is accused of taking kickbacks from Medtronic. Some of the civil complaints can be found at this link, as well as the response by Dr. Durrani's lawyer. There are also several patients of patients of his defending him in the comments. Since February, the number of patients suing has ballooned to 150.

As was the case for Dr. Fata, I think a local news report gives the flavor of what's going on:

The federal grand jury indictment can be found attached to this news story. The indictment lumps the charges into these categories:

  1. DURRANI would persuade the patient that surgery was the only option, when in fact the patient did not need surgery
  2. DURRANI would tell the patient the medical situation was urgent and that surgery was needed right away. He would also falsely tell the patient that he/she was at risk of grave injuries without the surgery
  3. For cervical spine patients, DURRANI would often tell a patient that there was a risk of paralysis or the head would fall off if the patient was in a care accident because there was almost nothing attaching the head to the patient's body.
  4. DURRANI often did not read or ignored the radiology reports written by the radiologists for imaging studies that DURRANI ordered (e.g., xrays, CT scans, and MRIs)
  5. DURRANI would provide his own exaggerated and dire reading of the patient's imaging that was inconsistent with or plainly contradicted by the report written from the radiologist. At times, DURRANI provided false reading of the imaging.
  6. DURRANI would dictate that he had performed certain physical examinations and procedures on patients that he did not actually perform.
  7. DURRANI would order a pain injection for a level of the spine that was inconsistent with the pain stated by the patient or the imaging. DURRANI scheduled patients for surgeries without learning or waiting for the results of certain pain injections or related therapies.
  8. DURRANI often dictated his operative reports or other patient records months after the actual treatment.
  9. DURRANI's operative reports and treatment records contained false statements about the diagnosis for the patient, the procedure performed, and the instrument used in the procedure.
  10. When a patient experienced complications resulting from the surgery, DURRANI at times failed to inform the patient of or misrepresented the nature of the complications.

There's also a rather strange, but interesting, twist in this story, namely that the five patients whose medical records were reviewed might all have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder in which the collagen that makes up certain connective tissue is too elastic and easily deformed. Most forms of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome are inherited in an autosomal dominant fashion. Dr. Durrani's attorney is arguing that the standard of care is different for these rare patients and that they did need surgery. Even if that's true, I don't see how it would absolve Dr. Durrani of charges that he documented diagnoses patients didn't have, procedures never done, and dictating procedures and charts months later. In any case, I will concede that, to me at least as a surgeon, Dr. Durrani's case strikes me as less clear-cut than that of Dr. Fata, but quite troubling nonetheless.

The problem

In the wake of these cases, I have heard many observations, some reasonable, some not, regarding what the problem is. As an example of the unreasonable, take a look at Debbie Schlussel's disgustingly racist take on Dr. Fata's case, where she accuses that "a significant percentage of doctors and other healthcare professionals who commit healthcare fraud are Muslims, Arabs, or both" and uses the opportunity of Dr. Fata's arrest as an excuse to rant against immigrants, Muslims, and Arabs. (It would probably blow her fragile eggshell mind to tell her that not all (or even most) Muslims are Arabs and not all Arabs are Muslim, but that's for another day.) One notes that she provides zero evidence to support her assertion that a disproportionate amount of Medicare and health insurance fraud is committed by "Muslims, Arabs, or both." Can anyone say, "confirmation bias"? Sure, I knew you could. I've also heard it also said that the problem is foreign medical graduates (FMGs). Never mind that Dr. Fata received all of his medical training and Dr. Durrani did his orthopedic surgery residency and multiple advanced fellowships at top-notch institutions right here in the good ol' U.S. of A. While it's true that we need good mechanisms to make sure that physicians who receive their medical training outside of the U.S. are trained up to the standards expected in the U.S., but if there's any evidence that FMGs are more prone to fraud that U.S.-trained physicians, I am unaware of it. Certainly Schlussel hasn't provided any such evidence.

One reasonable observation that is unavoidable from all this is that an impressive pedigree and having trained at top-flight medical schools, residencies, and fellowships are no guarantee against what Dr. Fata and Dr. Durrani are accused of having done. Dr. Fata, for instance, routinely won local "top doc" honors from the local magazine that does the list every year (every major city has one). Dr. Durrani was on the faculty at the University of Cincinnati ahd had a reputation as a

The real question that cases like this bring up is about state medical boards. Fraud almost never gets to the level of what Dr. Fata, for example, is accused of without a long prior history. Indeed, Dr. Fata apparently had that history, as is coming out now in local news reports, for example, this report from WXYZ-TV, which describes allegations of patient mistreatment going back years. Also revealed is that there is currently an open complaint against Dr. Fata with the Michigan Board of Medicine:

Interestingly, a search of the Michigan website for Dr. Fata's medical license reveals no open complaints against him. Similarly, neither the State Medical Board of Ohio nor the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure websites has any notice of action against Dr. Durrani. The question is: Why not? Why is it that it took the feds investigating Medicare and health insurance fraud to discover—virtually stumble upon, actually—evidence of Dr. Fata's wrongdoing? Why is it, for example, that the North Carolina Medical Board has been unable to do much against Dr. Rashid Buttar and, even more egregiously, the Texas Medical Board hasn't been able to stop Stanislaw Burzynski? It matters not to me whether the offense is practicing pseudoscientific "alternative medicine" (as Dr. Buttar does, in my opinion), using unapproved and unproven cancer drugs (as Dr. Burzynski undoubtedly does), administering unnecessary chemotherapy (as Dr. Fata is accused of doing), or doing unnecessary surgery (as Dr. Durrani is accused of doing). What matters is that these physicians either administer treatments far outside of the science-based standard of care or are accused of doing so.

As I've pointed out before, one of the most contentious and difficult aspects of trying to improve medical care is enforcing a minimal, science-based "standard of care." Optimally, this standard of care should be rooted in science- and evidence-based medicine and act swiftly when a practitioner practices medicine that doesn’t meet even a minimal requirement for scientific studies and clinical trials to support it. At the same time, going too far in the other direction risks stifling innovation and the ability to individualize treatments to a patient’s unique situation–or even to use treatments that have only scientific plausibility going for them as a last-ditch effort to help a patient. Also, areas of medicine that are still unsettled and controversial could be especially difficult to adjudicate. The cases I've described above, with the possible exception of that of Dr. Durrani (and even then I'm not convinced yet) do not fall into these gray areas. So why can't medical boards protect patients against such doctors? Why did it take allegations of insurance fraud to bring in the feds, who acted rapidly to shut them down? Indeed, in the case of Dr. Fata, U.S. District Attorney Barbara McQuade explicitly said, ""Our first priority is patient care. The agents and attorneys acted with a great attention to detail to stop these allegedly dangerous practices as quickly as possible."

Why couldn't the Michigan Board of Medicine have done the same? Why couldn't the other relevant state medical boards do the same about the other doctors? Unfortunately, our current system doesn’t do a very good job of protecting the public from physicians who practice obvious quackery or who commit fraud, for many reasons. Most medical boards are overburdened and underfunded. Consequently, until patients or fellow practitioners complaints are made and there is actual evidence of patient harm, there is all too often literally nothing they can do. Also, in my experience, state medical boards tend to prefer to go after physicians who misbehave in undeniably bad ways: alcoholic physicians or physicians suffering from other forms of substance abuse; physicians who sexually abuse patients; or physicians who are “prescription mills” for narcotics. These sorts of cases are easier to adjudicate. They are much more clear-cut and detrimental to patients, but most importantly they don’t force boards to make value judgments on the competence and practice of physicians, such as determining whether Dr. Fata's use of chemotherapy or Dr. Durrani's surgical practice are outside the standard of care. Unless a patient is hurt and complains, state medical boards often can't even investigate.

That doesn't leave physicians off the hook. Having spoken to oncologists I know last week, I know that some of them who saw patients of Dr. Fata's as second opinions had serious misgivings about some of the courses of treatment they encountered. I know that some physicians in the area of Dr. Fata's home base (Crittenton Hospital Medical Center) did not think very highly of him. Although I've never had any personal interaction with him and don't recall seeing any of his patients for surgery what I can tell, there were many indications and red flags, but for some reason Dr. Fata practiced for eight years untroubled by the state medical board or the law except for the occasional malpractice suit. Did any of these doctors seeing Dr. Fata's patients for second opinions think to report him to the medical board? What about those doctors who saw some of Dr. Durrani's patients and told them they had had unnecessary surgery. While it's true that sometimes doctors have differences of opinion, if what the feds say is true these go far beyond reasonable medical differences of opinion between health care professionals. Of course, it doesn't help that in some states health care professionals can suffer serious consequences for filing reports, as two nurses in Winkler, TX discovered when they tried to report a bad doctor. Also making it difficult to discipline physicians is the problem that in many states physicians who are on these medical boards are unpaid and reluctant (as they see it) to strip a fellow doctor of the means of his or her livelihood. There’s also a cultural tendency among physicians to stick together. We understand the difficulty of making decisions that can have profound consequences in our patients’ lives, and we tend to want to bend over backwards to give fellow doctors the benefit of the doubt.

Advocates for science-based medicine cannot help but be appalled at how easily physicians can get away with practicing so far outside the standard of care, even to the point that patients are harmed, with little or no interference by state medical boards. It's bad enough when it's done through a belief in quackery, but it's even worse when it's done in order to turn patients into cash cows. Boards are outgunned and underfunded to the point where they can barely deal with the sorts of cases Dr. Atwood described. Also, truth be told, part of the problem is that the attitude among doctors seems to be that a medical license is a right, not an incredible privilege bestowed upon us by society that takes an equally incredible commitment and skill to be allowed to keep. That being said, I will take this opportunity to emphasize again that doctors who consistently do not practice science- and evidence-based medicine to the minimal standard of care, be it because they are incompetent, dishonest, impaired by substance abuse, or because they have come to believe in quackery, do not deserve to be physicians. If we as a profession do not find a way to do better, legislators will do it for us, but that shouldn't be our primary motivation. Our primary motivation should be that quality patient care should rule supreme because our patients deserve no less.


More like this

This has echoes of a case in South Africa a few years back, although what happened was not as egregious. A back surgeon (sorry, i don't know the correct term) named Wynne Lieberthal set up his own medical supply company and over-ordered from it at vastly inflated prices, and used far too many items in surgeries. As with the cases above, it took years for the authorities to act.

By Julian Frost (not verified) on 12 Aug 2013 #permalink

Treating patients for cancer that do not, in fact, have it must really inflate the survival rates for his practice. That could result in glowing reviews. Who ever argues with success?

By lmachintelligence (not verified) on 12 Aug 2013 #permalink

@Imachineintelligence: that is an excellent point.

By Julian Frost (not verified) on 12 Aug 2013 #permalink

Well, I guess it all shows that it's aways a good idea for the patients themselves to educate themselves on what the standard treatments for various illnesses are. And that it pays to have a second opinion at times.

The worst case of patient harm and abuse I know of is Earl Bradley (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earl_Bradley), a pediatrician in Delaware convicted in 2010 of molesting/raping/assaulting 103 pediatric patients, some only a few months old--over a 15-year period 1995-2010). Other physicians and even Bradley's sister had told the state medical society that he was molesting patients, but no one apparently passed this onto the Delaware Medical Board or the police (as needs to happen under most state mandated reporter laws). What finally got Bradley caught was a police investigation of a 2 year old patient of his who had told her mom that Bradley had hurt her. The police found that he had videotaped most of his assaults--which he could not refute in court, ultimately leading to his conviction and life in prison.

There's several reasons to be mad and upset here. First and worst is what this wretched excuse for a human did to those infants and children. That Bradley was a physician whose specialty was caring for children makes it so much more horrible. Second, other physicians "kind of" reported him (to the medical society and hospital, but not the police or medical board) is upsetting. Also, the hospital he rounded at investigated him in the mid 1990s for alleged sexual abuse of patients (for very long and unnecessary vaginal exams), but somehow those at the hospital forgot to tell the police or state medical board as they should have. Third, the medical board did receive a police complaint about his behavior, but apparently told the police not to come back until the police with had a victim or a parent. Fourth, Bradley would take the children away from the parents for a "special exam" that was in his basement where he raped (and videotaped) them. What's upsetting is that as a parent, I would never let someone take my infant or child away from me like that. But there are good people out there who trust us physicians so much that they would do anything we ask, which makes it all the worse when one from our profession so vilely abuses that trust--and Bradley must have figured out which parents were that trusting of him.

Interestingly, since Bradley's conviction, those who should have done more to protect these kids have paid a price of sorts thanks to a lawsuit (class action) against those who should have done more to protect those kids--including several physicians, the Delaware Medical Society and the hosptial where Bradley rounded ( http://delawarebusinessdaily.com/2012/11/judge-approves-settlement-earl…). But it is sad this all came well after the fact and not from within the medical profession's own extremely atrophied desire for any self-policing.

I just don't get it when other physicians look the other way when a colleague is doing obvious harm to patients--be it quackery, fraud, or rape/abuse.

By Chris Hickie (not verified) on 13 Aug 2013 #permalink

I can see why these things stay unreported for a long time. You need to be pretty damn sure before you come out with allegations like this as a private individual. You bring a case before a state board, and the accused has Dr. B.s lawyers, you see the doctor walk - and sue your pants off. Not even talking the risk that you might just be truly wrong and just brought down a multi-clinic operation and killed 60 jobs.
I agree it's surprising that Medicare didn't catch on sooner, but then, we don't know what got the state prosecutor involved - it might have been a request by Medicare to look into the matter.

In some states the problem is laws which limit what the state medical board can do. That's certainly true in Texas, where Burzynski basically got off on a technicality, and ISTR there is a similar issue with Dr. Buttar in North Carolina. I don't know how widespread the problem is.

There may also be a phenomenon similar to the "thin blue line" of policemen. A cop will back a fellow cop unless overwhelming evidence demands otherwise. I would not be surprised to hear that doctors are similarly reluctant to report other bad doctors unless the evidence is so overwhelming that they can't ignore it.

I don't know exactly what the various coding levels mean, but it sounds like what tripped Dr. Fata up was that he was billing for 24 hours or more in a day. Which ought to be a surefire way to attract attention from the auditors. If that's the case, Dr. Fata is yet another dumb criminal who neglected to take elementary precautions.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 13 Aug 2013 #permalink

Your head might fall off? There's almost nothing holding it on? What kind of patients fall for these stories?

By Mark Thorson (not verified) on 13 Aug 2013 #permalink

Your head might fall off? There’s almost nothing holding it on? What kind of patients fall for these stories?

That would be the patients who trust doctors fully and completely (and were preyed upon by that jackal)

By Chris Hickie (not verified) on 13 Aug 2013 #permalink

Although not to this extreme, my wife, a veterinarian, sees this kind of crap all the time. Gotta get those production numbers up, and so you need to make sure you are doing things that generate the revenue. It's not about whether it's medically necessary, it's about getting the money.

This is especially the case in the vet business, where people are working on a cash basis, and so doctors have to prioritize on doing things that are the best medicine possible that the owners are willing to pay. But that's not enough, because you are supposed to run up charges MORE than they are willing to pay so that you can squeeze even more out of them.

She got fired from her first job because her production numbers weren't high enough and she wouldn't modify her practice in order to do more things that weren't medically necessary or the patient couldn't afford in order to bring them up.

The darling associate in the practice was a guy who basically did full tests on everything. Then again, he had to because he had no real diagnostic insight, so he just did bloodwork. He wasn't any better at doctoring than my wife by doing it, he just ran up bigger production numbers.

The whole, "You aren't doing enough procedures on each patient to bring in revenue" attitude really jaded her. Show her how she was mis-managing cases or not performing up to snuff medically, but "you aren't ordering enough billable procedures" is not a criticism of her medical practice.

By Marry Me, Mindy (not verified) on 13 Aug 2013 #permalink

Medicine as practiced in the US is such a tortured mess of bad incentives, dysfunctional markets, and information asymmetries that it's hard to know where to begin.

By palindrom (not verified) on 13 Aug 2013 #permalink

Wow. Absolutely sickening.

In situations like this, do the authorities have any obligation to or make any efforts to assist the doctor's current patients with finding new providers, transferring medical records or continuation of their (hopefully valid) treatment plans? Or, do they have to fend for themselves?

By SkepticalSlug (not verified) on 13 Aug 2013 #permalink

We have a local dentist who is notorious for root planing. Everyone who goes to him is eventually told they need root planing. After comparing notes with other patients, I've discovered that most of those who have gone to other dentists for second opinions (like me) have found that they didn't need anything of the kind. There was also intense upselling of cosmetic processes, whitening, veneers, braces to help pay for his lavish, high-tech offices. Nasty.

By Pareidolius (not verified) on 13 Aug 2013 #permalink

You know what Orac....for a plexiglass box containing a bunch of blinking lights you make a fantastic doctor :)

By Delurked Lurker (not verified) on 13 Aug 2013 #permalink

As soon as I finish work I catch up on emails and my favourite sites.
Orak, you're at the top of the list and, while I wear my outrage trousers after reading your insightful posts of great wisdom (probably a major tautology and general abuse of our language there), rarely have I read one as shocking as this.
I genuinely cannot understand why there is such a vehement hatred of a National Health Service in the US.
Our NHS is far from perfect (in fact it's got worse since a lot has gone the Yank way), but this abuse of the system is inexcusable.


Our NHS is far from perfect (in fact it’s got worse since a lot has gone the Yank way), but this abuse of the system is inexcusable.

It seems that if there is a system, people will find ways to abuse it or otherwise screw things up. I have worked for the NHS most of my life, and I'm passionate about it, but the stories I hear on an almost weekly basis from friends and neighbours are appalling.

A neighbour and friend who is at risk of venous thromboembolism had an emergency caesarean a few months ago. The medical staff forgot to continue her anticoagulants post-op and somewhat predictably she suffered a pulmonary embolism. She survived, but this surely should never happen - it shouldn't be able to happen.

A diabetic friend lost his leg to an infection that was misdiagnosed in A+E. It was noticed by chance by an uninvolved specialist who saw him in the corridor, too late to save his leg. He is only in his 40s. Again, this surely should not happen.

My own wife was having several distressing episodes of altered consciousness every day for years. Her GP told her they were due to menopause and that she was "a neurotic hypochondriac". When I told him I suspected temporal lobe epilepsy, he shouted at me for unnecessarily worrying her, and categorically told her, "No more tests". In the end I persuaded a different GP to refer her to a neurologist who ordered an EEG which confirmed she has left temporal lobe epilepsy, which is now controlled with lamotrigine. No apology from the GP, of course.

As I said, I love the NHS, but recently I am nearing despair.

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 13 Aug 2013 #permalink

I genuinely cannot understand why there is such a vehement hatred of a National Health Service in the US.

1. Well-funded lobby groups who benefit from the current US funding structure and want to keep it that way.

2. Socialism!!

3. Perfectly rational cognitive-dissonance-reduction behaviour from the wider population. When you know that the power of money in the political system is such that no amount of popular demand can effect much change on the health model, why not convince yourself that the model you are stuck with is really the model you wanted anyway?

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 13 Aug 2013 #permalink

I genuinely cannot understand why there is such a vehement hatred of a National Health Service in the US.

Some of the more rational points might be:
1. You're not a fan of big government.
2. You're not a fan of high taxes.
3. You don't believe that a politically controlled system can be trusted with the details of your health, nor to be able to run in an effective and cost effective way.

By Mephistopheles… (not verified) on 13 Aug 2013 #permalink

MO'B @19: But each of those points has a direct counterargument against the traditional US system:
1. You're not a fan of big corporations.
2. You're not a fan of paying money to glorified paper pushers who add no value of the system.
3. You don't believe that a for-profit corporation can be trusted with the details of your health, nor to be able to run in a way which gives a higher priority to effective patient care than to executive compensation and corporate profits.

HDB's first point is the actual rational argument against a US equivalent of the NHS. His second is the point that's played up for the rubes.

Krebiozen @17: Any system can and will be gamed. The best you can do is to make the risk-to-reward ratio high enough to be unacceptable to anybody who might want to game the system in a particular way. The present US system is gamed to the gills, mainly by for-profit health care corporations, less often by individual providers like the two Orac discusses in the post, and occasionally by a civilian. The reason so few civilians game the system is that they are more likely to be caught and to suffer severe punishment when caught.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 14 Aug 2013 #permalink

My understanding is that while the cost of healthcare is underwritten by public funds, the NHS's health care providers represent independent contractors rather than government employees.

If that's socialized medicine Boston's Central Artery/Tunnel Project (aka the Big Dig) was socialized construction.

Vin ordinaire when I grew up. Procedure oriented medicine to grab fat insurance checks of well insured. Modus opera(ting)ndi: an ob-gyn surgeon waited until GP was out of town, diagnosed cancer, hacked away, collected $$$. No cancer either. Butchered a lot of youngish mothers, one way or another like botched deliveries, too.

I feel that today is better. But that may reflect larger cities with better choices as a biased sample.

So, another query. I note that these doctors are being charged with mainly fraud and occasionally, malpractice.
Should they be found guilty will they be tried for murder?

Eric Lund,
1. Until recently, most hospitals and nearly all doctor's offices were not owned by big corporations. Insurance has been until recently a mass of smaller companies regulated by the individual states.
2. That's true whether it's insurance requiring the paperwork or the government. What government do you know of that doesn't require reams of paperwork?
3. If your for profit insurer misuses your health records, you can sue them and there are criminal penalties. Can you sue the federal government? And win? I don't think so.

By Mephistopheles… (not verified) on 14 Aug 2013 #permalink

It's my opinion that some people may well have developed a position against a national health system based on something besides lobbying, a knee jerk reaction to "socialism", and being a dupe, which is what herr doktor bimler's message suggested to me. Not that they're right, but I don't believe those are the only three choices.

By Mephistopheles… (not verified) on 14 Aug 2013 #permalink

Just last week a local surgeon here was sent for formal discipline: he had lied about removing a patient's brain tumor (he said he removed the entire tumor, when in fact all he had done was take biopsies and the bulk of the tumor was still in place); he lied to the patient about her needing any further treatment (he told her that she didn't, whereas in fact she should have had further surgery and radiotherapy, according to other surgeons); and, he deliberately altered or destroyed her medical records and test results on multiple occasions to keep his deception from being discovered by other practitioners (possible in the NHS because we *do* have a single, joined-up system for medical records, which is usually a -good- thing).

The end result, though, was a woman who is now expected to die in a few months from a brain tumor which has become inoperable, although it certainly wasn't that way when it was first detected.

In the cases above, patients were harmed for profit, and the system failed to do anything to protect them. In this case, at least one patient was harmed to cover up one surgeon's idiocy, and the system also just didn't catch it in time. These things make you sick to your stomach, but even though the insanity of running your health care system as "for-profit" I think makes it worse, I don't think we will ever manage to eliminate this kind of sociopathy entirely. We just have to keep trying to tighten the monitoring and regulation, sadly.

And by "dupe" I meant "dupe of the moneyed classes".

By Mephistopheles… (not verified) on 14 Aug 2013 #permalink

I seem to remember a diatribe against the NHS/Socialist system which stated that, had he been British, Stephen Hawking would have been dead if he'd been treated under our health system.


My understanding is that while the cost of healthcare is underwritten by public funds, the NHS’s health care providers represent independent contractors rather than government employees.

That isn't actually the case, though things do seem to be heading that way. Most clinical, nursing and ancillary staff (what used to be called "professions supplementary to medicine" e.g..diagnostics, physiotherapists, dieticians, etc. etc.) are directly employed by the NHS in the form of the local hospital trust or primary care trust, which are funded by central government. Some (too many) agency locums are also employed, often regular staff on leave from their NHS job.

Even hospital consultants are on NHS salaries, though some (fewer than a few years ago) may still not have stipulated hours they are contracted to work, and many work for the private sector as well. GPs are a grey area as they are in some ways employed by the NHS but have some (increasing) autonomy.

In the 1980s compulsory competitive tendering for support services was introduced, and many porters, cleaners, cooks and others left direct NHS employment. If you take being a member of the NHS pension scheme as a yardstick, since staff working for contractors are not entitled to join, the NHS directly employs about 1.5 million people in England, Wales and Scotland.

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 14 Aug 2013 #permalink

So Hawking's life was saved by his speech synthesizer's accent? What a stroke of luck.

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 14 Aug 2013 #permalink


Vin ordinaire when I grew up.

I may be naive, but surely doctors as despicable as that must be few and far between. I can see how people can be tempted to skim off more than they are strictly entitled to, but telling a patient they have cancer when they don't, just to make a fast buck? That's psychopath territory, or so I would like to believe.

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 14 Aug 2013 #permalink

Here's an article that clarifies the ambiguities of who does or does not work for the NHS, for those interested. It's a couple of years old, but still accurate.

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 14 Aug 2013 #permalink

Organizing any large bureaucratic organization is difficult, and the NHS has evolved in a haphazard way over several decades. It is a lumbering inefficient beast, not because the principle of quality health care free at point of provision is a flawed vision, or unworkable, but because of historical vagaries.

My own area of specialty is a good example of how things can go wrong. The pathology department in the last NHS hospital I worked for had an annual budget of around £1 million. This was reduced every year, while demand increased about 10% year on year. This meant that we were being squeezed from both ends; managers insisted we save money, which meant staff cuts, increasing use of work experience (aka school children) and unqualified medical laboratory aides, increased automation and attempts to control demand; at the same time new technologies increased the repertoire of tests we were expected to offer, an aging population, increasing patient workload generally and increasing trends towards defensive medicine increased testing frequency. None of this particularly improved patient care, which is what it is all supposed to be about.

I saw a series of managers burn out and leave, often on extended sick leave for stress. It was an impossible position to be in.

Clinicians had their own budgets, but didn't pay for diagnostic test outs of those budgets, so they had no motivation to control the pathology work they demanded. A large number of requested tests were not clinically indicated, but were requested "just in case", as fishing expeditions or to cover the clinician's butt in case something went wrong. These unnecessary tests would regularly turn up anomalous results which mostly turned out to be idiopathic, after further expensive investigations, and very, very rarely turned up anything useful.

For years we were told that an internal market was to be introduced, which would alleviate some of these problems, but this was implemented in a half-arsed way. For example, if we needed some work to be done in the lab by the works department, perhaps moving a work bench, putting up some coat hooks, or even changing a light bulb, they would come and look at the job and give us a quotation for the cost of the work. This would be paid for out of our budget. When we did work for any other department, the cost also came out of our budget.

We were paid by the local primary care trust (GPs and maternity) for pathology provision, which was supposed to be related to the actual work done, but in practice was not, they paid a fixed rate that had stayed the same for years. I personally carried out an audit and estimated that they were only paying a small fraction of what they were costing us, but politics intervened, and I believe the problem has still not been sorted out, years later.

Don't get me started on the various IT solutions for getting the dozens of different systems that had been purchased by different departments over the years with no thought for an overarching strategy to talk to each other. The words "expensive" and "disaster" spring immediately to mind.

And so on and so forth.

I'm sure each department in that trust could tell similar tales of idiotic situations that have arisen through historical contingencies, and of managers driven to the brink of nervous collapse trying to get the Titanic to change course. Like I said, a lumbering inefficient beast. I don't know what the answer is, apart from redesigning the whole thing from scratch, which is of course impossible. However, the US does have that opportunity...

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 14 Aug 2013 #permalink