When North Texas journalist Laura Beil finished her hit podcast Dr. Death about Dallas neurosurgeon Dr. Christopher Duntsch that uses the title from D’s 2016 cover story, she began receiving calls about other physicians who were accused of malfeasance. Even today, she gets a call or two a week about suggestions for her next podcast.
“It’s kind of depressing in some ways,” Beil says. “I have to keep reminding myself that these are outliers and that most doctors are actually very good people who care for their patients.”
But this fall, Dr. Death season two began releasing episodes, focusing on Dr. Farid Fata. The Wondery podcast focuses on a former hematologist and oncologist in Michigan who is currently serving 45 years in federal prison for prescribing chemotherapy to patients who didn’t have cancer and submitting $34 million in fraudulent charges to Medicare.
Beil hosts the podcast, but the story was reported and written by Heather Schroering. It gives another look into a pathological criminal protected by the halo of being a physician, but Beil says the story was chosen because of how it exposes systemic failures in the healthcare industry.
How does a physician get away with giving unnecessary chemotherapy to hundreds, perhaps thousands of patients? Much has to do with the lack of checks on physicians who run their own clinics. Fata owned and operated Michigan Hematology-Oncology, one of the largest practices in the state, and had trained at the celebrated Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, so if a new nurse, physician, or patient questioned his tactics, they faced an insurmountable and asymmetrical power balance. The egregiousness and longevity of the scam make it all the more shocking, but the podcast reveals just how difficult it is to stop the fraud.
“He made sure that each employee only knew a certain amount about the business, so if you don’t have one person who has a good overview of what’s going on, it’s hard to tell,” Beil says.
The podcast also highlights the misplaced incentives physicians have to rack up fees with unnecessary treatment in the fee-for-service industry. While most physicians are doing what is best for their patients, because they only get paid for doing things, the incentive is there to keep doing things, even when it is unnecessary. Malpractice may be resolved with a second opinion, but those aren’t always covered by insurance, and can be a repeat of a traumatic experience.
Complaints against a doctor are subject to the whims and opinions of patients, so it makes sense that it is difficult process to remove a physician, as it would end or ruin a physician’s careers. But if the investigation doesn’t follow due process, the errors can be deadly. “It’s hard because we’re taught to trust doctors, we want to trust doctors, and most doctors are good,” Beil says. “It’s really difficult for other doctors to turn each other in, and is especially difficult for nurses to say something is not right here. A lot of times, it’s easier just to move on. So I do admire those nurses and doctors who do take it upon themselves to try to correct situations.”