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Disturbing Diagnosis

The Medical Board strikes again

When we last visited our friends at the North Carolina Medical Board, they were busy deciding the fate of Dr. Charles Buzzanell after a most unfortunate incident. A patient of his had died during what was supposed to be a relatively simple surgery, and despite the fact that Buzzanell lied to the medical examiner investigating it, the board decided he was fit to practice medicine. You see, Buzzanell couldn't be held responsible for his actions because he has ADD. Since he had successfully sought treatment for his affliction, the board decided to give him his license back. Our friends at the medical board, a group of doctors tasked -- at least in theory -- with policing their colleagues and protecting patients from bad doctors, had another busy month in November. The results were hair-raising.

Take the case of Dr. Kathryn Johnson Stephens of Charlotte, for instance. Dr. Stephens encouraged a pregnant patient who had scheduled a C-section with her at Carolinas Medical Center to "tie her tubes" during the surgery. When the patient refused, Stephens took it upon herself to sterilize the patient by unnecessarily clamping her fallopian tubes during the C-section, a move Stephens later admitted was aimed at doing enough damage to keep her from getting pregnant for awhile. The medical board's punishment? Stephens was ordered to take a 12-hour ethics course and her license will be suspended for a mere four months. She can return to practice as long as her psychiatrist feels she's making progress.

Then there's Dr. John Baniewicz. In 2000, Scotland Memorial Hospital in Laurinburg fired him after patients and other employees complained about the sexually perverse nature of the unnecessary "examinations" he was performing on female patients and the sexual language that accompanied them. None of this was completely Baniewicz's fault, of course, because he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. So in 2002, after he sought psychological therapy, the board decided that Baniewicz could resume practicing, but only if a female chaperone was present when he was alone with female patients. By November, the board had become so impressed with Baniewicz's miraculous recovery that it decided restrictions they'd put on him in 2002 were no longer necessary. Dr. Baniewicz is now practicing at Total Care Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation in Huntersville.

You may remember reading about Tuong Dai Nguyen, the Charlotte doctor who last year was charged with misdemeanor sexual battery after a rather graphic encounter that occurred when a trusting patient seeking treatment for erectile dysfunction dropped his pants, as instructed, in Nguyen's office. Five months before that, Nguyen was charged with simple assault after the examination of another patient went, shall we say, awry.

Since then, Nguyen has successfully completed a three-day medical ethics course called "Maintaining Proper Boundaries" and spent a month in the care of the Professional Renewal Center's Professional Sexual Misconduct Treatment team. According to medical board documents, the treatment team believes Nguyen is "making excellent progress" and "will be safe to return to practice in the near future."

If medical board history is any indicator, these two men will go on practicing indefinitely, as did Cary doctor Wallace N. Evans Jr. For years, female patients complained to the medical board about sexual assaults by Evans, to no avail. Eventually, 15 of them sued him for malpractice. They walked away with millions in 2000. As for who ultimately paid for that, well, that would be the responsible doctors whose insurance premiums go up as a result of lawsuits and ultimately, the patients whose medical bills pay those premiums.

As regular readers of this column know, these are hardly isolated cases. There are doctors practicing right now in this state who have long histories that include sexual incidents, surgery on the wrong body part, unnecessary surgery, numerous botched surgeries, and incorrect diagnoses. Though they represent a tiny percentage of doctors in this state, most of them have lost or settled multiple lawsuits totaling millions of dollars. Yet the medical board returns these doctors to practice again and again while most of the rest of our physicians go through their entire careers without a single complaint to the board, much less a lawsuit.

The fact remains that the deep fryers at McDonald's are subject to more regulation than the neurosurgeons in our hospitals. And North Carolina is just one of the states where doctors police their colleagues, often to the detriment of patients.

As President Bush and the Republicans push medical lawsuit reform in the coming weeks, I can guarantee that reining in bad doctors as a way to cut lawsuits won't be part of the plan. No, this is about protecting donors ... er, doctors, no matter how incompetent, from patients.

I've got a suggestion for Mr. Bush. If he's so convinced of the contemptible greed of patients and the infallibility of all doctors, let him prove it to us. The next time he has some insignificant, routine surgery, he should let Dr. Buzzanell wield the knife.

Contact Tara Servatius at [email protected]

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