The importance of selecting the right doctor to perform your surgery should never be underestimated. While most surgeons have only your best interests at heart, there are others who may not. Even though the incidence of doctors taking advantage of their patients is relatively low, it does happen and patients can be harmed as a result of unnecessary medical treatments, including painful surgeries.
A recent article by the Wall Street Journal examined the case of an Oregon doctor who is suspected of performing medically unnecessary spinal fusion surgeries on his patients. Over the past 12 months, reporters from the newspaper reviewed physician Medicare records, looking for billing patterns that may suggest inappropriate behaviors by doctors, including unnecessary treatments.
Portland-based neurosurgeon Dr. Vishal James Makker is one of the physicians whose name kept popping up, in particular because of the unusually high number of repeat surgeries he performed on some of his patients.
Dr. Makker’s billing record shows that in 2008 and 2009, he performed 61 spinal fusions on Medicare patients. Out of those cases, he performed additional fusions on 16 patients, giving Dr. Makker a rate of 39 subsequent spinal fusions for every 100 initial fusions he performed – the highest rate of spinal fusions among all surgeons who performed the procedure during this time frame on Medicare patients.
In addition to performing a higher than average number of procedures, Dr. Makker also has been sued for medical malpractice eight times in the nine years that he has been practicing medicine. While most physicians will be named in at least one lawsuit during their careers, Dr. Makker’s rate far exceeds the national average for neurosurgeons at approximately one case in every two years.
Dr. Makker also was subject of an April 2006 complaint before the State of Oregon Medical Board. Some of the allegations against him included performing medically unnecessary spinal fusions, providing inadequate follow-up care and billing for procedures he did not do. The complaint, however, did not result in disciplinary action against the surgeon. Instead, he was allowed to complete a remedial training program and billing course.
Spinal fusion surgeries are somewhat controversial in the field of medicine. Some orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons believe they are performed too often and in cases when they may not help improve the patient’s condition. The surgeries also are expensive – which may encourage some surgeons to perform them in cases where the necessity of the procedure is questionable.
Through email and text messages, Dr. Makker told the Wall Street Journal reporters that his unusually high number of spinal fusions was attributable to the fact that he takes difficult cases of Medicare patients that no one else wants and that he had to replace spinal implant devices that were failing, which he said he was no longer using. Dr. Makker also was adamant in his correspondence that he had never persuaded his patients to have surgeries they did not need.
How to Select the Right Doctor
Whether you need spine surgery or another medical procedure, it is important that you find a surgeon that you are not only comfortable with, but who has the right training and experience to perform the procedure for you. While there is not as much publicly available information about physicians and the level of care they provide as there should be, there are still ways to gather information about your doctor before agreeing to put your life in his or her hands. These include:
Ask the right questions
One of the best ways to determine whether your physician is qualified to perform the procedure is by simply asking him or her some questions, including:
- How many times have you performed this procedure?
- What types of complications are common with this procedure?
- What is the worst complication you personally have seen?
- What outcome should I expect if I have this procedure – i.e. what is the likelihood that I will have to have follow-up procedures?
- Are there other non-operative treatments that may be effective?
- Do you have a medical specialty?
- Are there other physicians in the area who have more experience in performing this type of surgery?
- Are you board certified?
Get a second opinion
Prior to agreeing to any operation, the first thing you should do is seek a second medical opinion. This can help you gauge whether your surgeon has prescribed the best course of treatment for your condition or if other physicians believe there are better treatment options available.
You can do some research on your own about your surgeon. The first place you should begin this search is with your state medical licensing board. Typically, state licensing boards will allow you to check a doctor’s credentials, including whether he or she holds a valid license to practice medicine in the state and whether he or she is board certified.
Some state boards also provide information on medical malpractice cases and disciplinary actions taken against a particular doctor. For example, the State of Oregon Medical Board provides public information on both types of actions in addition to other information, like where the doctor attended medical school and completed his or her residency.
Additionally, there are commercial sites where you can pay a private company to generate a background report on a physician, which may include any legal action taken against the doctor. However, it is best to start with reputable public sites first before paying for one of these reports.
Lastly, you may be surprised by what type of information will come up if you simply google your doctor’s name. You may find links to sites where other patients have rated your physician, find research papers authored by your doctor – or even find legal documents listing your doctor as a party in a lawsuit.
Ask for recommendations
You also may want to ask friends, family members and co-workers for recommendations. Depending on the type of procedure you are having, someone you know may have already had a similar operation or be familiar with a surgeon who specializes in the type of surgery you need. While this recommendation may not give you information on whether the doctor has been sued for malpractice, it can give you information about his or her bedside manner, competency and follow-up care.
If you have been the victim of medical malpractice, you do not have to suffer in silence. Under the law, you have the right to hold the physician responsible for any harm he or she caused you. You also are entitled to compensation for your injuries, including past and future medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering and other losses.
For more information on bringing a medical malpractice claim against a negligent doctor or other health care provider, contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney today.