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What's a few deaths among doctors?

The body count rises at Medical Board

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Dr. Charles Buzzanell rambled incoherently into the phone when hospital officials called him about a patient who was threatening to commit suicide. He forgot the conversation, he later explained, which is why he never showed up at the hospital to deal with the situation. That same month, another one of his patients died after the Hendersonville doctor performed what was supposed to be a relatively simple surgery involving a small pump that delivered medication to her spine. Buzzanell didn't bother to mention the complications that occurred during the procedure to anyone. When the odd circumstances surrounding her death attracted the attention of the county medical examiner, who was considering an autopsy on the patient, Buzzanell didn't tell her the truth either, and an autopsy was never performed.

None of this is Buzzanell's fault, of course, because he has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). The way the North Carolina Medical Board sees it, as long as Buzzanell gets treatment for his ADD, he won't be a danger to his patients.

Though Buzzanell voluntarily surrendered his medical license after the incidents above, a year later the North Carolina Medical Board, the body that's supposed to police the state's doctors, decided to give it back. In return, Buzzanell had to sign an agreement in January that he will continue treatment for his "illness" with therapists and support groups. He's no longer allowed to work with spinal pumps. Everything else is fair game, though, which means that Buzzanell, an anesthesiologist, is allowed to use potentially lethal medications to sedate people on a daily basis. And if he has an incoherent moment here and there, forgets to take his Ritalin or fibs to another medical examiner? Well, he can't be blamed for that, can he?

Dialysis isn't supposed to be a risky procedure either, but it apparently can be in North Carolina. Dr. Sherif Philips was supposed to be caring for a dialysis patient who was left unattended for hours and later found unconscious in a large pool of his own blood. According to medical board records, Dr. Philips didn't bother to help as other staff members at the New Bern dialysis clinic tried in vain to resuscitate the man, but stood approximately 10 feet away, observing the scene in silence. The patient died of blood loss.

In other states, the situation above would be considered, at the very least, a career-limiting move. But a year after the board formally charged him with unprofessional conduct, and four years after the incident occurred, Philips is still practicing medicine. The board continues to grant his requests to delay his hearing.

Given how slowly the wheels of justice turn at the state medical board, there is literally no telling what Buzzanell and Philips have been up to in the meantime, or how many patients have suffered because of it. The two cases appeared on the board's docket in February and March, and are the latest in a pattern in which the medical board delays judgment, overlooks evidence, neglects to address its own charges, or excuses the inexcusable in order to allow doctors who have maimed or killed patients to continue practicing.

The main problem, as we have noted before, is that the medical profession is the only one in North Carolina that polices itself. Though the North Carolina Medical Board has the power to issue or revoke medical 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. What is said in its discipline hearings is kept secret, even from the patients whose cases are being discussed. Unless the board formally charges someone, the public has no right to know what complaints have been filed against a doctor, or how many. 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 appointed 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.

Creative Loafing first started following the board after it revoked the medical license of a doctor who testified against another doctor in a malpractice lawsuit because it disagreed with his testimony, but allowed Charlotte plastic surgeon Peter Tucker to continue practicing after a patient died in his recovery room following a botched anesthetization. Similar stunts earned our board one of the worst rankings in the country from Public Citizen, a Washington consumer group, which ranked it 45th among 51 boards charged with policing doctors in 2002.

All of which leaves me wondering -- how many bodies will it take before someone decides that patients have a right to survive a minor surgery in North Carolina, even if their doctor has ADD?

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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