In 1995, a wrongful death lawsuit was brought against a Maryland surgeon by the family of a dead patient, stating he botched a gallbladder surgery and failed to treat the complications that followed. The doctor denied the claims, saying he complied with the standards of care. In 2007, another patient brought a medical malpractice suit against the same doctor saying the doctor failed to treat her properly for a life-threatening complication following a surgery. Again, the doctor claimed he was following the standard of care. However, the doctor settled both of these cases and four other medical malpractice suits in the past 25 years.
The worst part is that Maryland’s Medical Board never took action against this doctor, despite multiple medical malpractice, negligence and wrongful death lawsuits against the doctor. And if you go to the Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Virginia public websites that claim to help you know your doctor’s history, the websites would claim this doctor has a clean record.
Physician and consumer advocate Sidney Wolfe, who tracks doctor discipline (or lack thereof) and transparency issues, says state medical boards are made aware of all lawsuit settlements involving physicians because this information is added to the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB). The NPDB was established by Congress specifically to protect the public, but the public does not have access to the information collected in it.
So, when doctors settle medical malpractice lawsuits due to evidence that proves they acted negligently or violated the standard of care, this information is stored in the NPDB. However, patients or prospective patients of these doctors are not given any access to this information, which puts them at risk of undergoing procedures performed by doctors previously prone to medical errors.
Specifically, the NPDB withholds malpractice payments from the public dating back more than 25 years. According to the Maryland state law, the medical board is only required to disclose medical malpractice settlements from the last five years or if there are more than three cases filed against a doctor with payments of at least $150,000. This means a lot of medical malpractice cases are missing from online public medical profiles, and patients are not getting enough information to make sound decisions on who they want to safely treat their conditions.
According to WJLA Washington, D.C., the best way to get a better picture of your doctor’s history is to look at both their public profile with the medical board in your state in addition to the court filings related to that particular physician. It may not be the whole story, but it is important to get as much information as you can before undergoing any procedure. However, the NPDB should be more transparent with mistakes made by our doctors. If that were the case, perhaps state medical boards would be more diligent about disciplining doctors who make catastrophic medical errors.