Consumer Reports Highlights the Difficulty of Finding a Safe Doctor
Now that so many reviews of just about anything are just a Google search away, people can do their research before making nearly any kind of commitment. If you’re taking a trip, you can find reviews of the hotels you’re considering staying at. If you’re shopping for a new car, you can easily look up reviews from automotive journalists and from other people who have bought the car. Need a new crib or car seat for your baby? A few seconds on a search engine will tell you if the exact product you’re looking at has been recalled.
However, not everything is quite as easy to research. A recent investigation by Consumer Reports reveals how difficult it can be for consumers to find in-depth, accurate information about doctors, specifically whether or not they’ve been involved in any medical malpractice cases or if they’ve been disciplined by the state medical board.
According to Consumer Reports, the problem isn’t that people aren’t researching their doctors. Many people do, indeed, look up doctors they’re considering seeing because they want to make sure they’re putting their care in the hands of a trustworthy professional. The problem is that when most people look up doctors, they’re most likely to only see reviews by patients on sites like Yelp or HealthGrades, which only reflect the personal experiences other patients have had with the doctor. Yelp doesn’t publish information about things like malpractice cases or disciplinary actions taken against the doctor. HealthGrades does publish that sort of information, but Consumer Reports found that sort of information could be inaccurate or misleading.
Another problem Consumer Reports found is that there are thousands of doctors in the United States who are practicing medicine while on probation as a result of a disciplinary action, but their patients are often completely oblivious to that fact. In their investigation, they found cases of doctors who were on probation for things like gross negligence, being arrested for a DUI while on call, sexual misconduct, excessively prescribing controlled substances, fraudulent billing, and allowing unlicensed medical assistants to give painkillers to patients through infusion pumps. Doctors on probation aren’t required to notify patients of their probationary status and can continue seeing patients as long as they meet certain requirements, so many patients don’t know their doctor is on probation.
Information about things like medical malpractice lawsuits and disciplinary actions are all compiled by the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB). Unfortunately, access to the NPDB is limited to a very limited number of people, such as law enforcement officials, hospitals, doctors, and insurance companies. If the average person wanted to find out this sort of information, they’d have to go to their state’s medical board website, which is a less than ideal solution. In Consumer Reports’ investigation, they found that this sort of information was often very difficult to find or incomplete. In some states, users trying to get this information from the state medical board would have to pay a fee.
Medical malpractice is a relatively rare event, but it’s extremely disturbing when it does happen. Since 1990, 1,247,500 doctors have practiced medicine in the United States and 15% of them have made at least one medical malpractice payout. Less than two percent of those doctors were responsible for half of all malpractice payouts. Consumer Reports is campaigning to make it easier for the average person to avoid these sorts of doctors by making it easier to access information about malpractice cases or disciplinary action. Organizations such as the National Physicians Alliance would also like to see more transparency in regards to how doctors are disciplined. Robert E. Oshel, who spent 15 years working with the NPDB, told Consumer Reports, “You can find out more about the safety record of your toaster and whether or not it’s going to catch on fire than you can find about your physicians.”
However, the American Medical Association has long been against making information from the NPDB more readily available, saying the NPDB is a flawed system and the information would not necessarily help patients.