Posted by Bill Sandweg on 16 December 2019.
While it often takes a while, state medical boards usually catch up with surgeons who are so incompetent they keep killing and seriously injuring their patients. Unfortunately, it takes a pretty bad record to get a doctor suspended or to get his or her license revoked for repeated instances of malpractice. When that does finally happen, many of the doctors want to continue to do surgery. They need a place to go. When they can’t find another job or state that will take them, the Indian Health Service often accommodates them.
The Wall Street Journal does a wonderful job with its coverage of health issues. Recently, it published a thorough and well-researched piece on the frequency with which the Indian Health Service (“IHS”) hires surgeons and other physicians with questionable disciplinary records. Many of the doctors and surgeons with bad records who were hired lived up to their reputations and continued to malpractice, much to the detriment of the native peoples they were hired to care for.
There is no question that the IHS faces challenges when it comes to hiring doctors. In the first place, it does not pay well. As an agency of the federal government, it is limited in what it can offer and will not often be able to match the market rates of the big cities. Second, its patients often live on reservations which are located in isolated areas. When the government set up the reservations, it was not with the idea of giving the native peoples valuable land in good locations. Poverty, disease, alcoholism and diabetes are only a few of the conditions which regularly exist on the reservations and which make life there even more problematic.
As almost any small town hospital director will tell you, it is difficult to get good doctors to come live and work in small towns. While there are some who love to live in small towns, many more love the big city with its many cultural offerings. Life on an Indian reservation can be even more isolated than that in many small towns. The bottom line is that it is difficult for the IHS to find qualified, competent doctors to fill its many openings. While the IHS itself will admit that it should never take an incompetent surgeon, no matter how grave the need, many of these doctors end up being hired due to IHS employees ignoring their records or just plain sloppiness in failing to do even the most basic check on their records and licenses.
The Journal article recounts the cases of just a few of the troubled surgeons hired by the IHS. In most cases, they continued to practice on the reservations for years before even the IHS couldn’t keep them any longer. While they were practicing, however, patients were injured, patients died and lives were ruined due to medical malpractice.
Native peoples deserve better. Just because a person is poor, whether Native American or not, that person deserves to receive competent health care. We are the richest nation in the world but there is a huge gap between the quality of the health care enjoyed by the wealthy and that “enjoyed” by those in economic distress. It shouldn’t be that way.