Posted by Bill Sandweg on 01 February 2016.
There is an article in last week’s New England Journal of Medicine (“NEJM”) which confirms what many who observe the medical profession have suspected for years: A small percentage of doctors is responsible for a disproportionate number of medical malpractice claims. These so-called “frequent flyers” are sued over and over again and their insurers pay out over and over again because these doctors are hurting patients over and over again. According to the NEJM, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, approximately 1% of the doctors were responsible for almost one-third of all of the malpractice claims paid between 2005 and 2014.
The obvious question raised by these findings is how can these doctors be allowed to hurt patients over and over again? The identity of these bad doctors is not a secret. The medical malpractice insurance companies know who these people are. The insurers write the checks to the patients who are hurt by these doctors. Other doctors certainly know which of their colleagues are being sued or, even if not being sued, botch the care of the patients they have in common. State medical boards know because in most states they automatically receive notice when a doctor settles a malpractice claim. Hospitals know because they have peer review committees which investigate adverse incidents which occur inside the hospital and frequently identify the doctors whose mistakes have helped cause the problems.
The data upon which the NEJM based its article comes from the National Practitioner Data Bank, a data bank created by Congress for the stated purpose of improving health care, promoting patient safety and preventing fraud and abuse. In addition to other reports, a report must be made to the data bank every time a payment is made to settle a malpractice claim. The information in the data bank is available to the medical professional in question, to hospitals, to insurers, and to state medical boards. One would think that if patient safety was a goal, the information would be available to patients and to the public in general. In another example of its bias toward protecting doctors and not the public, Congress has provided that most of the information in the data bank not be available to the public. The public can get some general information but it can never get information about a specific doctor.
The bottom line is that the identity of the bad doctors who are responsible for a great deal of harm to patients is known to pretty much everybody but the patients. Despite the fact that this knowledge is so widespread among those who ought to be looking out for patients and keeping these people from harming still more patients, the bad doctors are allowed to go their merry way. Instead of politicians complaining about patients not being protected from bad doctors, politicians instead complain about patients being allowed to sue the bad doctors after they have been injured. Something is very wrong here.