“License to Kill” – Material Factual Inaccuracy
AANS leadership recently learned that the Oxygen Network is airing a promotional clip on its website for an upcoming television series called “License to Kill.” The initial episode of the show focuses, in part, on Dr. Christopher Duntsch, a former neurosurgeon in Texas who is now serving a life sentence in prison. Due to the fact that the promotional clip contains a materially inaccurate statement regarding whether Dr. Duntsch was board-certified, we felt compelled to issue this letter to the network and share its contents with AANS membership.
June 17, 2019
Kimberly D. Harris
Executive Vice President, Comcast
General Counsel, NBCUniversal
Re: “License to Kill” – Material Factual Inaccuracy
Dear Ms. Harris:
I am the President of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (the “AANS”). The AANS is dedicated to advancing the specialty of neurological surgery in order to provide the highest quality of neurosurgical care to the public. In order to quality as a Fellow of the AANS, a practitioner must be board-certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery (the “ABNS”).
I am writing on behalf of the AANS regarding an upcoming television series on the Oxygen Network called “License to Kill.” The promotional clip for the show, which is currently airing on the Oxygen website, contains a serious and misleading inaccuracy that should be immediately corrected. Further, the promotional clip should not be made available to the public, whether via the website or through other means, until such time as the inaccuracy is edited and corrected.
The initial episode of “License to Kill” is scheduled to air on June 23, 2019. That episode focuses on Dr. Christopher Duntsch, a former neurosurgeon in Texas who killed and/or maimed a number of patients and is now serving a life sentence in prison as a result of his criminal negligence. In one of the first promotional clips for the show, at approximately the 52 second mark, the show’s host, Dr. Terry Dubrow, asserts that Dr. Duntsch was “Board Certified to do brain and spinal surgery.” (See https://www.oxygen.com/video/share/).
Dr. Dubrow’s statement that Dr. Duntsch was board certified is patently incorrect and lacks any factual basis. Dr. Duntsch never completed the rigorous certification process mandated by the ABNS and, consequently, was not eligible to be a Fellow in the AANS. It is highly unfortunate that Dr. Dubrow, who is not a neurosurgeon and is evidently unfamiliar with the board certification process, has been allowed to make such a false and misleading statement. Even a minimal amount of due diligence would have revealed that Dr. Duntsch was neither board-certified nor a Fellow in the AANS.
As set forth in the letter to you from the ABNS, the purpose of board certification in neurological surgery is to identify and certify only those practitioners who are able to demonstrate, both in their regular practice and in the context of a thorough, in-person oral exam that they have the knowledge and disposition to practice competently and safely. Dr. Duntsch never attempted to make the showing necessary to obtain certification from the ABNS.
The AANS believes that the story of Dr. Duntsch is a tragedy. As an organization dedicated to providing the highest quality of neurosurgical care to the public, the AANS has significant concerns regarding the institutional failures at the hospitals that allowed him to continue to operate in the face of such poor results. However, the fact that certain institutions where Dr. Duntsch practiced failed in their patient safety mission does not somehow mean that the AANS or other organizations within organized neurosurgery were somehow complicit.
By allowing this inaccuracy to air, your network is espousing to the public that the ABNS routinely certifies incompetent practitioners and, further, that such practitioners are Fellows in the AANS. There is simply no basis for this misleading and entirely inaccurate view which serves to damage the reputations of the AANS and the ABNS. The rigorous process required by the ABNS, as well as by other certifying boards, protects the public by distinguishing between those practitioners who are competent, knowledgeable and safe, and those who are not.
Given the tragic outcomes following Dr. Duntsch’s surgeries and the resulting hardships for his former patients and their families, we find it highly disappointing that the show’s producers did not engage in even the most basic fact-checking. The show’s host simply cannot be allowed to falsely represent to the public that Dr. Duntsch was board-certified “to do brain and spinal surgery.”
In order to avoid falsely misleading the public, we expect that Oxygen, NBCUniversal and Comcast will take all appropriate measures to retract or remove the erroneous statement and limit the damage that has already been done. We also expect that the show’s producers will, going forward, refrain from making any further misrepresentations as they result in reputational harm to the AANS and other entities within organized neurosurgery. The AANS reserves its right to take other appropriate measures if you fail to act.
Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter.
Christopher I. Shaffrey, MD, FAANS
Sent via FEDERAL EXPRESS On AANS Letterhead
2019 AANS/CNS Section on Pediatric Neurological Surgery Annual Meeting
Dec. 5-8, 2019; Scottsdale, Ariz.
Dec. 5-8, 2019; Mumbai, India
7th Emirates International Neurosurgical Conference
Dec. 12-14, 2019; Dubai, United Arab Emirates
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