Here's an easy question: If you had a habit of sexually assaulting your customers, how long would you have a job?
For most people, the answer would be: "About five minutes." That is, unless you happen to be a doctor licensed by the North Carolina Medical Board, in which case the rules most people live by don't necessarily apply to you.
The last time we caught up with our kook-fringe friends on the state medical board, they were debating what to do about Dr. Tuong Dai Nguyen of Charlotte. Dr. Nguyen, who practiced out of an office in a heavily Hispanic part of Central Avenue, had a nasty habit of asking his Latino patients to drop their pants and, well, what followed is not printable here.
Investigators theorized that Dr. Nguyen believed these men were less likely to report what had happened because of language and other barriers. Fortunately, in at least two cases, Nguyen figured wrong. He was arrested and charged with assaulting one patient in August 2003, which apparently didn't faze him. Nguyen was arrested again in January 2004 on sexual battery and assault charges. A month later, he surrendered his North Carolina medical license and in July of last year he entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the Mecklenburg County District Attorney's office.
Most people would assume Nguyen's medical career was over, zip, zilch, finito, but regular readers of this column know better.
After a month in the care of the Professional Renewal Center's sexual misconduct treatment team, he successfully completed a three-day medical ethics course called "Maintaining Proper Boundaries." Nguyen's doctors reported to the medical board that Nguyen was "making excellent progress" and would "be safe to return to practice in the near future."
A year after Nguyen surrendered his license to practice medicine in this state, he became eligible to apply to get it back. Three months later, it was hanging on the wall of his new office at 6404 Albemarle Road -- two miles from his old office and in another heavily Hispanic area.
Like other physicians who have committed sex-related offenses in North Carolina, Nguyen is supposed to have a chaperone with him at all times when he sees patients and to continue his therapy, according to an agreement he signed with the medical board.
It's an arrangement that rarely lasts long in doctor sex-abuse cases in this state.
In 2000, Scotland Memorial Hospital in Laurinburg fired Dr. John Frank Baniewicz after patients and employees complained of his sexually explicit language and unnecessary, sexually perverse "examinations" on female patients. None of this was completely Baniewicz's fault, the medical board decided, because he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. So in 2002, after he sought psychological therapy, the board decided Baniewicz could resume practicing, but only if a female chaperone was present when he was alone with female patients. The board was so impressed with Baniewicz's miraculous psychological recovery that two years later, the board decided the female chaperone and other restrictions it had put on him in 2002 were no longer necessary. Dr. Baniewicz is now practicing at Total Care Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation in Huntersville.
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 patients sued him for malpractice. They walked away with millions in 2000. And who ultimately payed for it? That would be the responsible doctors whose insurance premiums go up as a result of lawsuits and the patients whose medical bills pay those premiums.
These are hardly isolated cases. There are doctors practicing right now in this state who have long histories that include sexual assault, drug abuse, unnecessary surgery, numerous botched surgeries and incorrect diagnoses. Though they represent a tiny percentage of doctors, many of them have lost or settled multiple lawsuits totaling millions. Yet the medical board returns these doctors to practice again and again.
The main problem here is that the medical profession is one of the few in North Carolina that polices itself. Though the medical board has the power to issue or revoke licenses like a state agency, it's a private body that answers to no one. There's no higher body for patients to appeal to. And the law doesn't actually require that the board discipline anyone for anything.
Worse yet, by law, the majority of the medical board's members are selected by the North Carolina Medical Society, a powerful physicians' special interest group with deep pockets and more than 11,000 members statewide. Over the last decade, legislators' attempts to end the medical society's power to make appointments to the board have gone down in flames, thanks to the society's proficient state lobbyists.
And, thanks to their efforts, the patients of doctors like Nguyen have paid the price.