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WAAY 31 I-Team Investigation: Protecting Patients

Watch our WAAY 31 I-Team investigative report tonight on WAAY 31 News at 6. Decatur's Dr. Michael Dick exposed a problem that exists across the country. Some doctors can abuse their patients' trust. WAAY 31's I-Team investigates what's happening in Alabama to protect patients.

Posted: Feb 19, 2019 9:02 AM
Updated: Feb 24, 2019 9:11 PM

The WAAY 31 I-Team's taking a closer look at what’s happening in Alabama to protect patients from predatory doctors. The trending topic of a Decatur doctor convicted of harassment has some patients thinking twice about their own doctors.

Next month, the state’s medical licensure commission will decide whether to strip Dr. Michael Dick of his medical license.
Right now, that license is suspended.

Already convicted of assault, the Decatur rheumatologist is appealing his criminal case. Plus, dozens of women are part of a growing civil lawsuit. We took action to find out what you can do to check out your own doctor’s background.

From the exam room to the courtroom and potentially to a prison cell. Decatur’s Dr. Michael Dick is the target of complaints from dozens of accusers. The women claim, inside Dr. Dick’s exam rooms, he kissed them, slid his hand down their pants, even demonstrated his arousal by rubbing himself against their legs.

Dr. Dick’s patients are not alone. Face to face with their doctor a patient can feel vulnerable, perhaps even easy prey.

“It makes me sad that they’re so scared,” one woman told us. “They’re afraid to go to the doctor or go to the gynecologist.” We’re protecting the woman’s identity. She’s comforted friends who worried their doctors crossed the line.

“Mentally, they weren’t feeling comfortable for themselves,” she explained. “They thought maybe they had done something wrong. But, basically, I just let them know that 'it’s not you. You did nothing wrong’.”

"We call it boundaries between the patient and the physician,” Wilson Hunter, general counsel for the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners, told WAAY 31.

Protecting that patient-doctor boundary is the responsibility of the board of medical examiners. "The board is established to protect patients' safety first and foremost,” Hunter said. “That’s what their mission is. That has always been and that's what we're here to do."

Hunter says doctors and patients have a power inequity. Some doctors exploit that imbalance and abuse their patients’ trust.

“Prosecuting these cases is a priority for us,” Hunter said. “We prosecute them with all our efforts and with all our resources.”

Hunter told WAAY 31 the vast majority of doctors in Alabama follow the rules. But, not all. He told us a handful of doctors can be “careless,” “reckless,” sometimes “ignorant.” Some even go so far as to intentionally disregard those rules.

"Dr. Dick is, I would say, a rarity based upon the numbers that we have,” Hunter told us. “But, I think if you look out nationally and look at the studies, people like him do exist.”

How do you know if your doctor has skeletons in their closet? Here in Alabama, there are about 18-thousand people with medical licenses. The board of medical examiners tracks them all. Proactive patients are able to access some skeletal information about doctors’ backgrounds.

"The board, we have a website in which we post the licensee's disciplinary information, their training, their education and whether or not they've ever been disciplined by the board,” Hunter explained.

At albme.org, you can find those basics.

WAAY 31 learned Alabama’s Board of Medical Examiners is working right now to bring its transparency into sharper focus. "I think we can always be more transparent,” Hunter said. “We're more transparent than some. And there are places that we have identified where there are opportunities for improvement. And we're looking at those this year to implement them.”

The board told us its website will get a facelift. The more modern site will have an expanded searchable data base. That data base would give patients more information about their doctors’ backgrounds including releasing more about restrictions and punishments the board imposes on doctors.

“With all those things in mind, the board is committed to transparency,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hunter, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, heads a team of ten investigators recruited from law enforcement. They investigate about 175 complaints about licensees each year. That’s just shy of one percent of medical license holders.

Ultimately the board disciplines about a hundred a year. About half-a-dozen are sexual boundary cases like Dr. Michael Dick’s.

His case was exposed because patients came forward. Hunter told us, “We're really dependent on patients to file complaints with the board so we can take action.”

Action this woman hopes protects patients from predators with medical licenses. “Just seeing someone violated like that for a woman is very hard for me to see or even comprehend.”

One of the attorneys involved in the civil action suit against dr. Michael dick tells us all of the patients suing are women.

But, they’ve had discussions with some of the doctor’s patients who are men.

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