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In 2002, the former wife of an Air Force captain sought treatment at an Air Force base hospital for pain and swelling in her right arm. The doctor, who believed the woman was a drug addict seeking pain medication, allegedly sent her home and told her to take ibuprofen for her pain. As it turns out, the woman was suffering from necrotizing fasciitis, otherwise known as flesh-eating bacteria.

Necrotizing fasciitis is a painful disease that affects skin tissue and muscle fascia. Many different bacteria can cause the disease, including methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Despite the woman’s complaints of pain, her doctor ignored the symptoms and failed to diagnose her with an infection. As a result, the patient’s arm is now permanently disabled and she faces a lifetime of continuous pain.

A federal magistrate ruled that the doctor was at fault and ordered the U.S. government to pay $8.6 million.

The ruling brings into question statutory medical malpractice caps, an issue I have addressed in the past. This woman suffered needlessly because her doctor did not take the time to diligently address her complaints. If this had occurred at a private practice in Michigan, the amount of damages the patient could receive would be limited by law to a woefully inadequate amount. Rather than receive a judgment proportional to her suffering and based on the facts of her individual case, she would have to make do with the statutory maximum.

This story also brings into focus doctors’ ethical and professional obligations to their patients. We have recently posted stories about abusive and overworked doctors whose performance falls dismally short of the standards to which they are held.

Doctors hold their patients’ lives and livelihoods in their hands, and they are usually handsomely compensated for their services. Along with that station in our society there should also come accountability.

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