Christopher Duntsch and the Problem of Closed Ranks

Christopher Duntsch may have been much more than a bad doctor

Christopher Duntsch might not be a household name, but it’s a name many of his patients and their families won’t ever forget. For reasons as yet unknown, the neurosurgeon botched multiple surgeries, killing one patient and injuring several others, including a childhood friend. But according to a new report in the Dallas Morning News, Duntsch may have been much more than a bad doctor.

“I am ready to leave the love and kindness and goodness and patience that I mix with everything else that I am and become a cold blooded killer,” Duntsch reportedly wrote before embarking on his surgical spree that spanned several hospitals between 2011 and 2013.

A judge refused to reduce Duntsch’s $600,000 bail last Friday, noting that Duntsch posed a flight risk and could attempt to regain his medical license. The possibility of regaining his medical license probably seems far-fetched to anyone unfamiliar with the way the medical accountability system works in the United States. But the reality is that the system is set up to protect dangerous doctors — and that’s exactly what it did for Duntsch in the midst of his malpractice spree.

In my forthcoming book, Malpractice: A Board-Certified Neurosurgeon Reveals How the American Health Care System Harms Patients and Protects Dangerous Doctors, I write about Duntsch at length as an illustration of one of the core issues facing our health care system today.

Despite a multitude of warning signs, Duntsch was able to bounce between hospitals, experiencing almost no consequences for his dangerous and deliberate malpractice—until after the damage was already done. His case is an extreme example of how the medical field continues to place the protection of doctors over patient safety, closing ranks around problematic physicians no matter the circumstance. For a field that deals so directly with life and death, the refusal of medical providers to create or submit to any meaningful, transparent review processes, either external or internal, is unacceptable, unfortunate, and unsafe.

If you’re interested in learning more about the details surrounding this case and hearing my take on medical accountability, you can read a fascinating excerpt from my upcoming book, Malpractice, here.