The recent hullabaloo over the controversial Health Care Reform Act brought to the surface many pertinent issues of our entrepreneurial medical industry. While no piece of legislation will solve most of the really important problems, lost in the fray were economic and legal issues that impact more than just who pays for what and why.
A recent news story from Georgia brings to the surface one of these issues. CBS has reported that a woman almost bled to death during a surgical procedure performed by an ophthalmologist. According to their accounts, the woman awoke during the procedure and heard the doctor calling 911 for help as she was bleeding extensively.
Just this much of the story should raise two pertinent questions. The first being how do you bleed to death from eye surgery? Even the anatomically uninformed would assume there are no major blood vessels around the eye. Contrary to what one would think, he wasn’t performing eye surgery at all. He was performing breast augmentation! And the second question is how was it that she awoke to find herself in this dilemma? She was having it done in the doctor’s office. Luckily, a plastic surgeon was on staff at a nearby ER and helped save her life.
Such a story, while not common, is by no means rare. Today, every medical specialty is suffering from plummeting insurance reimbursements and skyrocketing malpractice premiums. (The Health Care Reform Act has addressed neither of these issues). This sets the stage for economically struggling doctors, and borderline unethical ones as well, to turn to more profitable fee-for-service cosmetic procedures to enhance their income. The public would assume, incorrectly, that there are laws in place to keep doctors practicing outside of their scope of training…but there are not. In most states, Indiana included, there is no law against physicians performing whatever procedure they choose, whether they have qualified training or not. All you need is a valid medical license. Because hospitals protect their own liability and will not allow doctors to perform procedures outside of their training, this can be easily bypassed by performing these procedures in their own office where the only governing body is the providing physician. There is no law against me, a board-certified plastic surgeon, performing Lasik vision correction or cataract removal in my office, even though I have no formal training to do it.
But this disturbing story does not stop there. Months after this event has occurred, the state medical licensing board refuses to suspend his medical license or has yet to even have a formal investigation. This lack of regulatory intervention is not rare. Licensing boards are shockingly slow and often very reluctant to pull any license even when the issue that is being reviewed is one of blatant disregard for the rules and does place patients at risk. The take home message is do not count or give too much credit for any governmental agency looking out for you. The legal roadblocks and delay tactics will often let a rogue doctor continue in practice for years.
The obvious message of the story from Georgia is that the burden is completely up to the patient to determine whether their physician is qualified to perform the cosmetic or plastic surgery procedures they seek. Slick-looking websites and discounted or low-fee incentives can make it easy to overlook the big picture…your safety.
Do your research and bear in mind that most, if not all, physicians in good standing will welcome your questions. An informed patient is a great patient.
Dr. Barry Eppley