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Off the Record: When doctor-patient becomes doctor-lover

Off the Record: When doctor-patient becomes doctor-lover

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When medical boards are at their best, they focus on the types of poor judgment calls that hurt patients.

Dr. John Perry provided the Washington Medical Quality Assurance Commission plenty of those.

But boards also care about other things: when doctors don’t pay their taxes, how well doctors keep up their books, and who they date.

In February 2000, Perry, married with five children, met a woman on the Internet and later started an intimate relationship with her, according to commission records.

Normally, this would not matter to the medical board – and perhaps wouldn’t matter to most patients – but when an intimate relationship blurs into a doctor-patient relationship, medical boards become concerned. The idea is that patients should get clear-eyed, agenda-free advice from their physicians. Medical decisions should be entirely distinct from personal ones.

Here’s how that part of Perry’s story unfolded, according to commission records:

The woman Perry met had chosen to have her fallopian tubes tied, making her unable to conceive a child. But, while they were dating, they decided they wanted to have kids. So Perry preformed a tubal ligation reversal surgery on her. It worked. She got pregnant, but in November 2002 she had a miscarriage.

This led to more procedures. Perry preformed a procedure to examine her uterus in July 2003 and found that one of her fallopian tubes was not connected. After trying in vitro fertilization, Perry’s girlfriend became pregnant again, and he performed yet another surgery on her – delivering the child via Cesarean section in April 2006. By October 2006, she was pregnant again, and Perry delivered this through a C-section, too, in May 2007. The couple continued to try to have more children, but two more pregnancies ended in miscarriages. The commission wrote:

After the first miscarriage another physician performed a suction D&C procedure on Patient F which resulted in hemorrhaging. [Perry] subsequently performed at his office a second D&C on Patient F to stop the bleeding.

At every step where Perry was involved in making medical decisions for his girlfriend, he was violating widely held standards of care.

The commission summed it up this way:

Respondent’s care fell below the standard of care in regard to Patient F by his taking charge of her health care and performing numerous significant medical  procedures on her, in spite of his close personal and romantic relationship with her.

So, the tally, according to commission records, was: five patients injured in less than a two-year span and a woman whose reproductive decisions were being made with a doctor who had a significant emotional investment.

What did the commission do?

It did not do anything until March 2010. And then it put him on probation and gave him a $5,000 fine. The emphasis was on education. For example, the commission wrote:

Respondent will attend and successfully complete one of the following ethics courses within one year of the effective date of this Agreed Order. Respondent will communicate with the Commission’s staff Medical Consultant as to which course he intends to take. Any difficulty in the timing of the entry and/or completion of the course can be worked out with the Commission’s staff Medical Consultant.

He didn’t lose his license permanently. He didn’t lose his license temporarily. He could show up for work the next day and operate on anyone but family members. He just had to take some classes, and that’s the emphasis of two bills introduced this legislative session -- one in the Washington state House and one in the Senate. They would create a silent pathway for doctors to take some classes and ostensibly fix their problems out of public view. Some of you may really like this plan. California tried it for years and decided it was an abject failure.

And to understand why medical boards should generally keep their reeducation programs – not to mention true disciplinary programs – available for public scrutiny, I will write more about Perry in a future post.

Because the reeducation plan didn’t end up being enough.

Image by El Payo via Flickr


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I'm already casting this film in my mind.... Maybe Liam Neeson as the aging but still-got-it physician in full-blown midlife crisis. Perhaps Sofia Vergara as the voluptous foreign-born internet lover in search of babies and a rich doctor-boyfriend to keep her in America. How about William Shatner as the slightly befuddled chair of the Washington Medical Quality Assurance Commission who, when all is said and done, pats old Liam on the back as they're booking next Wednesday's golf game together? The End. Fade to black...

This perfectly creepy story (and there's more?!?) would be juicy titillation if it weren't sadly true.

Picture of Robert Oshel

Another result legislation keeping the Washington Board's actions secret would be that the actions would not be reportable to the National Practitioner Data Bank.  This would prevent licensing boards in other states where me might apply for a license and hospitals where me might apply for clinical privileges from learning of his record and taking appropriate action to protect the public.  The Washington licensing board and legislature seem more interested in protecting questionable physicians than in protecting the public.

In Washington over a 20 year period only about 1.39 percent of physicians were responsible for over half of all the money paid our for malpractice claims, and the majority of that 1.39 percent had multiple payments in their records.  Yet only about one-fifth of them had any action at all taken against their licenses by the Washington licensing board.  It seems to me that the public needs more protection from questionable physicians.  Questionable physicians don't need more protection from public disclosure of their bad records.


The Center for Health Journalism’s two-day symposium on domestic violence will provide reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The first day will take place on the USC campus on Friday, March 17. The Center has a limited number of $300 travel stipends for California journalists coming from outside Southern California and a limited number of $500 travel stipends for those coming from out of state. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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