Raleigh, NC -- The North Carolina Medical Board has opened an investigation into a neurosurgeon whose history of malpractice lawsuits and vision problems were detailed in a newspaper series.
David Henderson, the board's executive director, said his agency began looking at Dr. Richard P. Greenberg after it received questions about his history from The News & Observer of Raleigh.
In a two-part series, the newspaper said Greenberg is both colorblind and essentially blind in one eye, which means he lacks the depth perception experts say is needed to operate on nerves and around the spine.
The paper also said Greenberg has been sued 22 times in Arizona, and his insurers have paid to settle seven of those malpractice cases, with several worth at least $300,000. His insurers have also settled two cases in North Carolina.
Greenberg, 61, is licensed to practice in four states, including North Carolina, and retains his privileges to operate at Gaston Memorial Hospital in Gastonia. He recently left his practice at the hospital, and while he's establishing a solo practice in Shelby, he told the newspaper he might retire.
The newspaper reported Tuesday that Greenberg has applied for credentials to work at Cleveland Regional Medical Center in Shelby.
A committee of the hospital's medical staff will make a recommendation on Greenberg's application to the hospital's board next week or next month, said John Young, the hospital's president.
Young said he read about Greenberg in newspaper series and that he has reviewed the doctor's record. He would not say whether he thought Greenberg meets the hospital's standards for quality of patient care.
Young said the 241-bed hospital needs a surgeon to perform back operations. That could be a neurosurgeon or an orthopedic surgeon, he said.
"The most important question is: Do we have the right people?" he said. "Our medical staff does a great job, and they will do the right thing."
In an interview with the News & Observer, Greenberg said he performed 300 to 400 surgeries a year and told the paper his impaired vision does not effect his surgical abilities.
"I don't think that folks who see out of two eyes can understand that someone who is monocular can adapt and do a good job," he said. "I don't think that it's possible to do an internship and a residency in neurosurgery and be chief resident ... if you are incompetent."
Among the malpractice cases settled by Greenberg's insurers in North Carolina is one filed by Chris Shively, a 43-year-old construction manager from Charlotte, who charged that the doctor operated on the wrong part of his spine. The surgery, Shively said, left his left foot paralyzed, forcing him to walk with a brace and live in constant back and leg pain.
Shively told the newspaper he never would have agreed to the surgery had he known about Greenberg's history or problems with his vision.
"Lord, no," he said. "Absolutely no, no question."
Greenberg told the newspaper that Shively's surgery was performed properly and he did well for 17 months afterward.
In 1996, the newspaper said, Greenberg applied for and renewed his license with the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners. On the application, he was asked if he had any physical conditions that could affect his ability to safely practice his specialty. He answered no, and Greenberg said in an interview he always answered honestly.
A year later, when Greenberg sought a North Carolina medical license in 1997, the newspaper said he again answered no when asked if he had been told in the past five years that he is impaired as a result of a medical condition. In an interview, Greenberg said his impaired vision does not affect his surgical skills.
"They are asking about my professional abilities," he said. "I would say no, I don't have a handicap."
Greenberg was responsible for informing the state medical board about prior malpractice payments when he applied for a license, the newspaper said. Officials at the medical board would not say what they knew about Greenberg's malpractice payments in Arizona. Henderson said the medical board did not know about the cases settled since Greenberg started practicing in North Carolina.
Henderson said if the board can confirm a doctor was not completely forthcoming about his history when seeking a license, "the likely outcome would be charges authorized by the board."
Dean Harris, a professor of health-care law and ethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health, said a high number of lawsuits and settlements isn't evidence of incompetence.
"That's a red flag to investigate, an indictment but not a conviction," Harris said. "I would care much more about disciplinary action taken by a medical board."