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Two reporters catch the same doctor in a very similar act

Two reporters catch the same doctor in a very similar act

Picture of William Heisel

Devoted readers of Antidote's Doctors Behaving Badly posts might get the impression that all doctors have trouble cutting straight, prescribing properly or keeping their hands out of their patients' underwear.

Of course, these doctors are a small, but pungent, sore on an otherwise healthy body of professionals working diligently help cure what ails us. I received an email this week that proved to me just how small the world of dangerous doctors is.

It was within minutes of my sending out a Doctors Behaving Badly about Dr. Gary W. Hall in Phoenix.

Ah, that brings back memories. I can't believe they finally took his license. Arizona BOMEX usually waits until you kill several people. And then only if the press finds out.

BOMEX is short for the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners, the old name for the Arizona Medical Board. The note was from my good friend Christopher Farnsworth.

When I started on the health beat at The Orange County Register in 1999, Farnsworth was covering tech. He gave me a copy of The Great White Lie by Walt Bogdanich. It remains one of the best pieces of reporting about hospitals and was a perfect primer for me as I began looking into some of OC's hospital problems.

Farnsworth had recently arrived at the Register from The New Times in Phoenix. That was where he had written about Hall. The two of us had never talked about Hall, but somehow, in the span of 12 years, both of us had found him to be a great way to illustrate how the physician discipline system can do more to protect doctors than patients.

Here's a bit of what Farnsworth wrote in 1998:

Some people, however, take a dimmer view of Dr. Hall. He's had 121 complaints filed against him, according to the BOMEX database. Hall has been on probation since 1996 for unprofessional conduct after patients complained about billing, advertising and quality of care. More than half of the total complaints against him have been racked up since he's been on probation.

Neither Hall nor his attorney returned phone calls seeking comment for this story.

Christine Hacheyis one of those complaining. But, she says, she has a dim view of pretty much everything since her eye surgery by Hall. Hachey says Hall damaged her eyesight, rather than improve it. She won a small verdict against him last year in Maricopa County Superior Court. Hachey went to Hall's clinic in 1993 for an eye exam, and was invited to one of the seminars Hall was holding on RK--radial keratotomy, an increasingly common procedure where microscopic incisions are made on the surface of the eye's cornea to flatten imperfections and correct defects in vision. Hall was one of many doctors who were aggressively selling RK. The elective procedure could be performed quickly on many patients. RK was tagged by some as "slash for cash."

In 1993, when Hachey underwent four procedures, Hall was performing between 80 and 100 surgeries in a row, according to news accounts. He would turn on a swiveled stool between two chairs as patients came in and out of the surgery suite from a waiting area, Hachey recalls. Hachey says she couldn't see anything clearly after the first surgery. After three more, her eyes were getting worse. She called it quits.

About the same time, BOMEX was investigating other complaints filed by Hall's patients--many of which were eventually dismissed. But as other complaints were filed, Hall's problems with the state board came to a head in 1996. BOMEX agreed not to go after his license when he agreed to probation for unprofessional conduct. It's a tactic BOMEX uses frequently. It allows the agency to avoid the time and expense of taking doctors to a formal hearing, which can then take additional years of appeals and courtroom time.

These are the details about Hall that are no longer available on the Arizona Medical Board's site. And why is that? Farnsworth's reporting, oddly, had something to do with it. He tells me:

When I wrote my story it was possible to get the entire complaint database on disk in comma-delimited format. Then, after I published my story, they decided it was no longer public record. Funny how that happened. So you can no longer find the complaints, which do have a tendency to pile up – just the actions, and then not even much info about them.

This is one of the saddest things I have ever read. To think that good investigative reporting could actually encourage an agency to close access to records. I'm sure many of you have similar stories, though.

Farnsworth, meanwhile, moved on from medical monsters to historical ones. He found out that President Andrew Johnson pardoned a man who was accused of being a vampire and used that as the basis for a series of books that will launch next month. The first one is Blood Oath: The President's Vampire, and it has already generated quite a bit of buzz and some great reviews.

A former journalist making it as a writer? It isn't just the bad doctors who get second chances.

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