When choosing a doctor, most people rely on recommendations from their friends and insurance information about whether a doctor is covered by their health insurance.
If you have had a bad experience with a doctor or suspect that have been injured by a medical error, perhaps you have wondered whether your doctor has previously been sued for malpractice. How do you find out? And does it matter? According to a new study published in the Journal of Patient Safety, it might give you some idea of how good of a doctor they are.
While the majority of doctors are hard working and dedicated to their work, a small percentage of physicians are involved in a disproportionate share of medical errors. Medical researchers say that roughly 2 percent of physicians in the U.S. are responsible for more than half of the over $83 billion in medical malpractice payments made in the last 25 years.
A Portion of Doctors Responsible for Costly Errors and Patient Injuries
While 2 percent sounds like a very small percentage, it represents more than 22,500 physicians.
The study, published in the Journal of Patient Safety, analyzed data on malpractice payments from the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) from 1990 to 2015. Researchers noticed that the payments were heavily weighed toward a small group of physicians. For those who had a malpractice payment in a high amount, the study found there was a 74% chance of a subsequent payout of another malpractice claim. Physicians who had paid at least 2 malpractice claims had twice the risk of having to pay another claim.
The average payment for the claims analyzed was $371,054.
The study found that doctors in four medical specialty practice areas were responsible for more than half of the negligence claims brought. The specialties are:
- Family medicine
- Internal medicine
- General surgery, and
- Obstetrics and gynecology
One of the study’s limitations is that it is just not possible to track all malpractice payments of disciplinary events. There are some ways of hiding information about who pays what in malpractice lawsuit. For example, if a physician pays a claim using their personal funds, that is not reported to the NPDB. If a payment is made using a corporate shield (for example, in the name of an entity and not the doctor), then the name of the doctor is not disclosed. Not every license or clinical privilege action is reported to the NPDB, such as clinical privilege actions that are for fewer than 30 days.
What kinds of complaints are common?
There are a variety of complains that you can find against a doctor, but some of the most common include:
- wrong medication
- wrong dosage
- delayed diagnosis
- unnecessary or botched surgery
- unnecessary treatment
- wrong-site surgery
State Medical Boards Do Not Catch Everything
One issue that state medical boards are known for is their lack of aggressive action against problem physicians. The licensing and disciplinary boards are composed of physicians, leading to criticism that they are reluctant to bring disciplinary actions against fellow doctors.
Of the group that comprised the 2 percent of physicians responsible for more than 50% of medical malpractice payments, only 2836 (12.6%) had even one adverse licensure action against them as reported to the NPDB.
The authors of the study recommend that state boards look at the portion of physicians responsible for over half of payouts to see if there are any issues that warrant disciplinary action.
How Do I Find Malpractice Claims Info on My Doctor?
One place to start is a website called DocInfo, run by the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB). DocInfo is a database that collects information on any disciplinary action taken against a doctor nationwide. This could be helpful because your doctor could have practiced medicine in another state prior to their current position.
If you just want to check records for Pennsylvania, you can search the Pennsylvania Department of State, Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs (BPOA) online database.
Look to the Courts
Some doctors have had malpractice suits filed against them, but have not received any sort of disciplinary action taken against them by the state board. Since lawsuits are public record, you can check court records in the county where a doctor practices or has practiced to see if they have been sued before.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that doctors can be sued over any number of things. Things to watch out for when you look at records of lawsuits against a doctor are (1) how many times they have been sued (2) how large the award or settlement was against them, if they did not win, and (3) what kind of claims were brought against them.
Preventing Medical Malpractice
As a patient, you may not think there is anything you can do to prevent medical negligence. But there is! By being a cautious consumer and patient, you can be alert to indications that a health care provider is making a mistake.
Some suggestions for avoiding medical mistakes include:
- Ask Questions. Pay attention to your prescribed medications and dosages and make sure the drugs you receive are the ones that were prescribed. Ask questions if you don’t understand the treatment a doctor has prescribed.
- Get a second opinion. This is especially true if your doctor recommends surgery or a major treatment.
- Bring someone with you. If you will be undergoing any serious procedure or treatment, bring someone you trust with you to be your advocate. They may catch a critical mistake at a time when you are under a lot of stress.
You are your own advocate, but you will need the help of an experienced Pennsylvania medical malpractice attorney to investigate and determine whether the medical treatment you received fell short of the recognized standard and care and was negligent.