March 6, 2020 • By Dennis Beaver
Following completion of his residency in ophthalmology with a specialization in the retina, “Tomas” set up his practice in a small west-coast city. While it had several ophthalmologists, the town lacked a retinal specialist. Two older physicians, “Drs. Doug and Randy,” handled most retina cases competently, yet they welcomed Tomas warmly to town.
Patients with complicated retinal issues had been referred to a teaching medical facility hours away, so having an eye doctor with this sub-specialty in a small town is a great gift to the population.
My law practice has been fortunate in having a large number of physician clients. Being in the company of highly educated, accomplished people who do good things for humanity is a reward in of itself, aside from anything monetary, but economics apply to both law and medicine.
As I, and others who met Tomas would soon learn, he cared about one thing alone – the economics of medicine. Patients ranked far behind.
Physicians trained in a sub-specialty need to sell their skills. Aside from cosmetic practices–which advertise like mad–medicine is a still mainly a referral-based profession. So, when a new doc comes to town, hospital privileges will be obtained, and then comes the real “business” of selling oneself to colleagues who will, hopefully, refer patients.
Impressive Resume – Victimize Colleagues Trust
Tomas made the rounds of optometrists and his ophthalmologist colleagues, dropped off his impressive resume, talked shop, and with a winning personality–and stories of the brilliant physicians he had met while attending Harvard Medical School–soon he was treating patients who were ever so grateful to not have to drive for hours for retinal care.
But he was in a hurry, “to show my family that I could really make it,” as he admitted to me one day. Of course, in any occupation, competence and skill are essential, but if all you think about is getting business, there’s a shortcut just waiting for those people who are ethically challenged: Bad-mouth the competition.
It is important to point out one of the marvelous qualities of the health care professions: While of course there are professional jealousies, still, physicians trust their colleagues for the benefit of patients.
And so, when a respected member of the medical community hears from another, trusted colleague that “Dr. X is not competent–I’ve seen his disasters” chances are that he will be believed.
And that is precisely the campaign of disinformation Tomas started – focusing, at first, on the two eye doctors who handled routine retina matters, and then raised the ante, by discouraging patients with highly complicated issues from going to the teaching hospital.
Combined with this bad-mouthing campaign, Tomas was overcome with the fear of being sued for malpractice, and so rejected the kinds of cases that someone with his training should easily have been able to treat. This drove optometrists I spoke with up the wall!
It can take some time before one’s m.o. becomes obvious, and Tomas was successful for some time in ever-so-slowly damaging reputations. And then someone decided to look into his past.
Harvard Medical School? Really?
Medical Boards in most states show a physician’s license status and education. There for all to see on his Medical Board’s website was Tomas’ medical school, and it wasn’t Harvard! Yes, he was an ophthalmologist, but those stories of brilliant teachers at Harvard he regaled his colleagues with? – A pure figment of his imagination.
When word got out about the truth of his accomplishments–and a one man war on his colleagues–his fortunes changed dramatically.
Defamation, Unfair Competition and Interference with Contract
A group of physicians met with an attorney who generally represents doctors in medical-mal practice cases, reviewed this destructive anti-competitive crime-wave Tomas had started, and devised a strategy to shut him up.
It’s ok to say, “I’m good at what I do and have better credentials than my colleague,” if that’s true. But it isn’t ok to build up our own reputation by dishonestly attacking that of a competitor. To do so can easily fall into the category of defamation, which can result in a law suit and significant damages.
An economic system functions well if we all respect the rules of competition, and that means honesty when speaking of a competitor. When, as Tomas did, spreading a focused campaign of false information, the consequences are lost business. Called variously by different states as unfair competition and tortious interference with contract, litigation can result along with an injunction and claims for damages due to lost income.
A letter outlining these possible consequences was hand-served on Tomas, at his home on Mother’s Day, captured in a photo. His expression was priceless. And, he’s been a good boy ever since.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.