Like it or not, medical malpractice litigation—or at least the specter of it—comes with the territory of being a physician. According to the AMA, more than 34% of physicians face a malpractice lawsuit at some point in their career, and nearly 50% are sued by the time they’re over the age of 55.
And each year, approximately 400,000 hospitalized patients are reported to experience some form of preventable harm at the hands of a care provider, according to an article published in StatPearls. Medical errors, including “surgical, diagnostic, medication, devices and equipment, and systems failures, infections, falls, and healthcare technology,” result in an estimated 100,000 deaths each year, at an annual cost of $20 billion, the authors wrote.
Industry statistics vary widely but it's estimated there are up to 20,000 malpractice lawsuits filed in the United States each year. Whatever the true number, it's clear they are costly to everyone involved. Here, we dissect a few of the biggest (and most appalling) cases of medical negligence and error from the past year.
Unnecessary surgery and sterilizations in Virginia
This case centers around Dr. Javaid Perwaiz, a Virginia-based obstetrician and gynecologist who was sentenced to 59 years in prison this year following almost a decade of medical malpractice.
According to court documents, a criminal complaint was filed against Perwaiz, accusing him of 26 counts of health care fraud, 32 counts of false statements relating to healthcare matters, and three counts of aggravated identity theft. He was ultimately found guilty of 51 counts of healthcare fraud and false statements.
Patients reported that Perwaiz persuaded several women to undergo invasive and irreversible surgeries, including hysterectomies, that were unnecessary. In at least one instance, he told a patient that if they didn’t receive the surgery, they would develop cancer. He also regularly fabricated hysteroscopies and colposcopies in order to bill healthcare benefit programs, and fabricated results as a justification for surgeries that were not needed.
Beyond this, Perwaiz was found guilty of performing sterilization procedures (most commonly, bilateral tubal ligations), without waiting for the 30-day period that federal regulations require, by writing false dates on consent forms that he submitted to Medicaid for reimbursement.
According to reporting by the New York Times, the court received more than 60 victim impact statements, and the procedures resulted in more than $20 million of fraudulent reimbursement claims. In one case, Perwaiz even removed a patient’s fallopian tubes without her consent or knowledge.
Overdose deaths in New York
The arrest of George Blatti was somewhat historical; it was the first-ever case of a doctor being charged with murder in the second degree under the theory of depraved indifference in New York state.
Blatti is currently on trial for five counts of murder in the second degree and 11 counts of reckless endangerment in the first degree, after he allegedly prescribed opioid painkillers to patients without any kind of medical history review or examination. According to a press release from the US Drug Enforcement Agency, in some cases, he had never even spoken to or met the patients. He was charged after the overdose deaths of five of his patients between 2016-2018.
According to the DEA, Blatti, a general practitioner originally licensed to practice medicine in 1976, had no specialized training in pain management and, at one point, was practicing from a former Radio Shack building that still had a Radio Shack sign and merchandise racks on the walls. Later, he would prescribe painkillers to patients out of his car in parking lots.
According to reporting by the New York Times, Blatti allegedly prescribed opioids to many patients who already appeared to be struggling with addictions. One district attorney commented “This doctor’s prescription pad was as lethal as any murder weapon.” Criminal charges over overdose deaths are rare, but they are increasing in prevalence as a result of the wide press coverage of the opioid crisis.
The mistreatment of incarcerated people in Arizona
According to court documents acquired by the publication Reason, the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry (ADCRR) has been the subject of several lawsuits over the preventable deaths of incarcerated people since 2012. This year, Tod Wilcox, medical director of the Salt Lake County Jail System, filed an expert witness report detailing some of these cases.
These include a paraplegic man, who was allegedly denied accommodations for his disability to the point where “his physical condition deteriorated so disastrously that he had to have his penis amputated.” Another case involved a man whose lung cancer went undiagnosed, despite imaging that proved his affliction. When the man’s cancer was finally acknowledged by care providers, they allegedly failed to provide pain management, leading him to die a “horrific and painful death as a result.” Wilcox also cites the case of a woman whose multiple sclerosis diagnosis was delayed for years. By the time she received a diagnosis, the disease had progressed irreversibly to a point where she was permanently paralyzed.
Wilcox described the mistreatment as “sustained incompetence and cruelty” and the ADCRR as “morally bankrupt.”
According to reporting by Reason, the ADCRR settled a federal class-action lawsuit, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and several law firms in 2015. But the ACLU and others have repeatedly accused the department of failing to change their broken system. A federal magistrate judge fined the ADCRR $1.4 million in 2018, and another $1.1 million this past February, for continuing to provide substandard medical care of incarcerated individuals. The 2015 settlement was also rescinded, and a new civil trial over the case began again this year.
What about COVID-19?
According to an article published by the American College of Cardiology, claims of medical errors were down by roughly 20% in 2020. It’s speculated that this is largely a result of lockdown measures, closures of court systems, and other impacts of the pandemic.
However, a wave of COVID-19-related malpractice claims are anticipated. Roughly 40 COVID-related claims had been made against ACC members by April of this year. But due to the length of time it typically takes for complaints to be reported, it likely won’t be until 2022 or beyond that the total number and nature of these claims will be revealed.
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