Do doctors have to let patients know about malpractice claims against them?
Many patients wonder about why doctors who continue to practice after they have been accused, or even found guilty, of malpractice do not have to inform their patients of their past history. In Sacramento, California, this issue is being scrutinized. A bill making its way through the state Senate is aimed at informing patients when doctors they visit are on probation after being disciplined by state regulators. The bill would apply to physicians, podiatrists, acupuncturists and chiropractors.
Considering that about 600 of the 137,000 licensed physicians in California are on probation for serious offenses, it is not surprising that the public wants to be informed of their own doctors’ past mistakes or indiscretions. So far, the measure has been passed by the Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee.
Types of Medical Malpractice Uncovered
The types of medical malpractice that have been reported are all disturbing; some are mind-boggling. Doctors have been accused, and sometimes found guilty of:
- Sexual misconduct
- Prescription errors
- Inappropriate treatment
- Surgical error
- Operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs
Innocent Until Proven Guilty
Patients should be aware that an accusation is not proof that any negligent or egregious act has taken place and often doctors settle with disgruntled patients just to avoid long, expensive legal fights. Nonetheless, apart from the ethical considerations, a doctor’s ability to function professionally may be hampered by prohibitions that result from being placed on probation. Medical professionals on probations may be barred from prescribing certain medicines or performing certain procedures. They may also, if disciplined for sexual offenses, be required to be chaperoned during any physical examinations of their patients.
Even so, not all medical mistakes are designated as malpractice and there are cases in which the fault is with the hospital rather than the physician. It should also be remembered that doctors whose practice focuses on treating patients who are more seriously ill are likely to have records of poorer outcomes and are more prone to being sued. Beyond all this, it is obviously unrealistic to assume that because a human being has a medical degree he or she becomes infallible.
As far as patients are concerned, they have cause to worry if their doctor has a history of multiple medical malpractice payouts. Where one such lawsuit may be explainable, three, five or more settlements are definitely cause for concern. It is important to realize that Consumer Reports has found that while 15 percent of the country’s practicing physicians have at least one malpractice payout on their records, less than 2 percent have two or more.
Support and Opposition to the Proposed Bill
Not surprisingly, medical organizations, such as the California Medical Association, tend to oppose the current bill, not only on its own merits as a tool of necessary disclosure, but for reasons as transparent as that requiring doctors to inform patients “would take up valuable time in which care could be provided.” It is difficult to see how helping a patient make an informed choice based on the qualifications and behavior of the doctor being consulted could possibly be a waste of time.
As one would expect, advocacy groups, like Consumers Union and Consumer Watchdog, take the opposing view to the Medical Association. Consumer Watchdog has stated that “The patients of these doctors deserve to be notified proactively.” You should be aware that a great many doctors who have been convicted of malpractice, even those who have made the largest payouts to patients they have wronged, have never been disciplined by a state board. According to Robert E. Oshel, who conducted the research on this matter for Consumer Reports, only 13 percent of these physicians have been disciplined by a state board.
Where to Get Information about Your Doctor’s Possible Malpractice History
There is apparent injustice in the fact that the National Practitioner Data Bank, the primary databank of physicians’ malpractice histories is available only to hospitals, physicians, insurance companies, law enforcements and a few other select groups. This information is not available to patients. Your only recourse as a patient is to go to your state medical board website which, a recent analysis found, may be difficult to navigate and may contain only incomplete information. For this reason, if you find yourself confronting a malpractice issue, it is essential that you engage the services of a highly competent medical malpractice attorney who will have the resources to perform a thorough investigation of the doctor in question.
Among the many problems plaguing healthcare in this country is the high number not only of malpractice claims, but of actual violations. If you have suffered illness, personal injury, or permanent disability as a result of podiatric or dental malpractice in the state on New York, you should seek legal counsel from the most skilled and focused team of experts in this particular field.