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Dr. Farid Fata, a Michigan hematologist oncologist, is simply the latest in a long list of physicians who have betrayed the trust of their patients, bilked the federal government of millions of dollars, and caused unnecessary pain and suffering for thousands upon thousands of patients. On July 10, Fata was sentenced to 45 years in prison based upon nearly two dozen counts of health care fraud, as well as a plethora of other charges.

Rarely are we more vulnerable than when facing a devastating illness like cancer. It’s a time when we often overwhelmed with anxiety, yet have to make decisions that may impact the balance of their lives; it is a time when we would like to believe, without reservation, that our physicians have our best interests at heart. Fortunately, the majority of the time, they do. But what of the exceptions? How do we protect ourselves against the unscrupulous doctors that abuse their cultural authority and the trust bestowed upon them?

There are clear steps you can take to safeguard their health when selecting a medical specialist and undergoing treatment. First, you need to take a very hard, data-driven look at your doctor. There are some basic questions you should be asking, including:

  • Is the physician Board-certified? Though Board-certification is no guarantee of either competency or ethical behavior, it does improve the likelihood of receiving appropriate medical care.
  • How long has the physician been practicing in his or her given specialty area?
  • Have there been complaints filed about the physician with your State Medical Board or can you identify legal action taken against the physician?
  • Does your primary care physician have an opinion regarding the competency of the specialist, and upon what is this opinion based?

Next, you need to understand your purported diagnosis and recommended treatment plan. Your physician should provide and interpret all of the results from your diagnostic imaging studies, laboratory analyses, and other tests.  He or she should then explain, in terms you can understand, the best course of treatment to achieve a specific goal. In cancer care, there are three, potential goals: cure, control, or make one more comfortable.

Before agreeing to the recommended treatment, there are two, critical steps that will help ensure your safety. First, try to determine if the recommended treatment is considered a “standard pathway” or a generally agreed upon method for treating your disease. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN.org) publishes guidelines for the treatment of most forms of cancer – including versions that are designed specifically for patients to review. If your physician’s recommendations deviate from these standards, you need to ask why.

Second, don’t hesitate to get a second opinion. If your physician balks or is not supportive of such action, find a new doctor. When seeking a second opinion, search out a specialist who has no affiliation with your current doctor. If there is a National Cancer Institute Center in your city, this may be a good place to start.

Doctors are every bit as mortal as you and I (trust me, I’m married to one…albeit a very good one). Fortunately, most physicians believe that it is a sacred responsibility to provide the best possible care.

We all know the saying about “a few bad apples.” When you find yourself faced with a serious illness, such as cancer, your job is to find the good ones!