Tonight (Jan 31, 2008) the CBS evening news will be airing a segment about a tragic case of a young Marine who died of melanoma. According to the news transcript, an unusual mole was diagnosed as a melanoma in 1997, but no follow up was scheduled, and no explanation given to the young man about his diagnosis or treatment plan. Eight years later in Iraq he complained to medical personnel of the mole growing larger and he was told it was a wart which would be treated once he returned to US soil. He slipped through the cracks somehow, and tragically died in 2008 of stage IV melanoma.
One interesting issue raised in the segment is that the Marine was not eligible to to sue for negligence in his case. There is a law, the Feres Doctrine, that denies military personnel the right to sue the government in cases of perceived or real medical malpractice. The rule was established in 1950 after a case was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court (Feres v. United States) in which servicemen who picked up highly radioactive weapons fragments from a crashed airplane were not permitted to recover damages from the government.
While I do understand (in theory) the purpose of this law – if every battle injury allowed soldiers to sue the government, we’d bankrupt our country in the span of a year – it does seem to be over-reaching in this case. The Marine was not injured in battle, but his life was indeed compromised by sloppy medical follow up. In my opinion, the doctor who correctly diagnosed him in 1997 should be held accountable for lack of follow up (if that’s indeed what happened). As for the military personnel who thought the Marine’s advanced melanoma was a wart, that is a tragic misdiagnosis, but hard to say that there was malpractice at play. With limited access to diagnostic pathology services, it is difficult (in the field) to be sure of the diagnosis of a skin lesion. And yes, I can imagine that an advanced melanoma could look wart-like. This is a tragic shame, but since the young man had the melanoma for 8 years prior to the misdiagnosis of the “wart,” in the end I doubt that a correct diagnosis at that point would have changed his terminal outcome.
But I wonder if the Feres Doctrine should be modified to allow for more accountability amongst military physicians in caring for diseases and conditions unrelated to military service? Although I am not pro-lawsuit, it does seem unfair that this Marine was denied the opportunity to pursue justice in his case. What do you think? Check out the segment with Katie Couric tonight and let’s discuss.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.