Monday, January 21, 2013

The Aurora Theater Shooter's Psychiatrist Has Been In Trouble Before

Some doctors choose to become psychiatrists because of their passion
for working with individuals with mental illness. Other doctors choose
psychiatry because every other specialty has rejected them.

Psychologists like to tell a old joke with a new twist. Here it is:

Question: What do you call the person who graduates last in a medical school class?

Answer: Psychiatrist.

Don't get me wrong, I know a tremendous number of excellent psychiatrists. They are good, smart doctors who chose the field of psychiatry because of their passion to help individuals with mental illness. But, there is also a portion of the psychiatric community that consists of doctors who barely made it through medical school, and the only residency program they could get into after graduation was a second-rate psychiatry training program. The best students from medical school tend to choose high-profile (and high-paying) specialties. Psychiatry is sometimes seen as the lowest of the low.

Anyway, these bad doctors end up taking care of people, and they don't always do the greatest job. They lower the profession of psychiatry in the eyes of the public, and they make good psychiatrists look bad.

Enter Lynne Fenton.

She is the psychiatrist who treated the Aurora Theater Shooter prior to his withdrawal from the University of Colorado. There has been a lot of criticism over her treatment of him and her decision to refuse an offer from campus police to place the shooter on a 72 hour mental health hold one month before the shooting.

What few people know, though, is that this is not the first time Dr. Fenton has been in the middle of a controversy. Around 2005, state authorities contacted her because an employee of hers tried to write an illegal prescription in her name. She fired the employee and cooperated fully with the investigation. In the middle of the investigation, Dr. Fenton reported she had prescribed medication to an employee, her husband, and herself in the late 1990s. This admission was completely unprompted, and when asked follow-up information, Dr. Fenton reported she did not keep medical records for those encounters--she essentially gave out a small quantity of free sample medication (Xanax, sleeping pills, and pain killers) and did not give it a second thought.

In her telling of the story, Dr. Fenton essentially admitted she had no idea why her actions might be wrong. Aside from being illegal, there is a concept in the medical profession called Nonmaleficence--meaning, above all else, do no harm to your patients. By not taking a thorough medical history, skipping a physical exam, and not documenting the encounters, Dr. Fenton placed her employee, her husband, and herself at risk of harm. And she didn't even realize it was wrong. That almost seems worse than knowing it was wrong and trying to cover it up.

The Colorado State Medical Board essentially gave her a slap on the wrist. They made her promise never do it again, and they made her take some ethics classes. The whole incident is documented on the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies website. If you search for Dr. Lynne Fenton on Colorado's ALISON website, you can actually download the action filed against her license.

Who knows if a different psychiatrist would have been able to provide the theater shooter the medical treatment he needed to avoid the horrific tragedy in the summer of 2012. But it was Dr. Fenton, a member of the campus safety/emergency response team and a doctor with a history of poor decision-making skills, who was charged with his care. I don't know if she will get into trouble because of her actions (or inaction), but she is not doing the field of psychiatry any favors.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


Lynne Fenton didn't take guns into a theater full of people and kill them, though. Fenton should have put Holmes on a hold, sure. But let's not vilify her for making a mistake. There's enough tragedy in this case to go around, let's not add to it.

I appreciate your comment, Anon. I agree that the shooter is the one who is to blame. In every instance of violence, the perpetrator is the one who needs to be held accountable. But, it is also important to understand all of the contributing factors in any violent event. Not so that we can shift the blame from the perpetrator, but so that we can work to potentially avoid such violence in the future. If there are things we can do as a society to make it less likely that a would-be killer actually engages in violence, that is a good thing. It is a delicate balance to walk though. I would be interested in what other readers think about this. Thanks again for the comment-- Max W.

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