Information on Medical Malpractice, Bad Doctors Not Easy to Get

It’s far too difficult for people to find out if a doctor they trust is guilty of medical malpractice, a new study by Public Citizen has found.   That disturbing fact is not a surprise to anyone who has followed the recent scandal involving Dr. Harvey Finkelstein, a Dix Hills, New York doctor whose poor infection control practices exposed potentially thousands of patients to blood borne diseases.   The New York Department of Health waited 34 months before making the public aware of the problems at Finkelstein’s office.

But a failure to inform the public of <"">medical malpractice is not isolated to the Dix Hills doctor case. A recent report by the Washington D.C.-based consumer advocacy group concluded that more work needs to be done to make the general public aware of the identity of those doctors who are repeat offenders in the medical malpractice arena.  In addition to recommending improvements in patient safety and healthcare providers training, the report stressed the importance of disciplining repeat offenders.  Unbelievably, only 33% of the medical doctors who made 10 or more malpractice settlement payments were disciplined by their state medical board and some doctors—with as many as 31 medical malpractice settlement   payments—have never been subjected to any disciplinary action.

Currently, attorneys and patients have no way of knowing who these bad doctors are because the National Practitioner Data Base’s public use file conceals practitioners’ personal information. Public Citizen urged Congress to lift the veil of secrecy which is used to hide doctors who are frequently accused of medical malpractice, especially considering the small percentage of doctors responsible for the majority of the malpractice committed in the United States.  While 82% of doctors had not made a medical malpractice settlement payment since 1990, 5.9% of the others accounted for 57.8% of all medical malpractice payments since 1991.

The report also pokes a hole in the myth that it is lawsuits that is driving malpractice insurance premiums through the roof and validates what consumer advocates and plaintiff attorneys have been saying for a number of years:  There is a great medical malpractice hoax being promoted by the medical community and insurance industry.

To make matters worse, a new survey suggests that nearly all doctors do not turn in their less-than-ethical colleagues, indicating disconnects between what doctors say is the right thing to do and what they actually do.  Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital mailed a survey—and a $20 incentive check—to over 3,000 doctors.  About half answered and some responses renew longstanding questions about the medical profession’s ability to regulate itself.  Over 90 percent of the doctors answering the survey said physicians should always report an impaired or incompetent colleague or when they witness a significant medical mistake, to the proper authorities.  But, 45 percent said they hadn’t always done so.

One-third of surveyed doctors admitted they would order an unnecessary and expensive MRI scan just to get rid of a complaining patient.  One-quarter admitting to referring patients to an imaging center in which they had a financial interest without revealing the conflict of interest, which could violate certain laws.   Fewer than one percent said they had lied to patients and three  percent reported withholding important information from patients or family members, even though it was something that those people should have known.  Eleven percent reported breaching patient confidentiality.  On a positive note, two-thirds of the doctors said they accepted patients who are unable to pay and three-fourths said they had volunteered without pay at least once in the last three years.  Overall, 28 percent of the responding doctors’ patients were uninsured or on Medicaid.

By the way, 21 doctors who did not respond to the survey did cash that $20 check.

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