How Do You Know You Are Safe With Your Physician?

You want the physician treating you to show care, intelligence, and ability; and to know, without doubt, that any treatment you receive, whether surgery or stitches, is going to be provided by a healthcare worker who is qualified and excels at their job. There are ways to research and identify physicians who are capable of providing medical treatment that meets or exceeds the standard of care, but how should you go about this research and what does the information mean?

As we all fear, at some point in their career the majority of physicians will be the subject of a medical malpractice claim. Fortunately, most of these medical malpractice claims turn out to be “non meritorious,” so they do not necessarily result in a settlement or lawsuit.  In fact, Americans file an estimated 17,000 medical malpractice suits each year. Studies have found that 75 percent of physicians in low-risk specialties have faced a malpractice claim, at some point in their careers. For those physicians in high-risk specialties, that number hovers around a shocking 99 percent. 

However, a physician or provider involved in a medical malpractice claim is not likely to disclose details when a medical malpractice claim is brought against them, outside of the requirement for the insurer to disclose a settled claim or won lawsuit to state medical boards. Regardless, it would be difficult to draw any real conclusions about the competency of a physician based purely on the number of malpractice claims that have been filed against them. A more telling fact is the number of medical malpractice cases the physician has settled for a significant sum. But this information, too, can be hard to find.

Furthermore, a patient is not legally permitted to discuss any aspects of a confidential settlement. So, with a lack of disclosure and a plethora of accusations, how can one protect themselves from the very real threat of medical harm from a negligent healthcare professional when seeking care?

There are specific bodies that are meant to oversee and create accountability for healthcare providers, such as state medical boards, but their information is often incomplete or was not required to be provided in the first place. However, they can provide great starting places, but don’t underestimate the power of simple crowd-sourcing when seeking a physician you can trust.

Medical Malpractice Lawsuit Resources

There are three primary places to begin research on a specific physician’s medical malpractice history: state medical boards, such as the Oregon Medical Board, Administrators in Medicine (AIM), and court records.

Each of these three options have their own limitations and benefits when looking for this type of information, as outlined below.

State Medical Boards

The Oregon Medical Board, like most state medical boards, has a comprehensive list of state actions against physicians, including medical malpractice settlements and lawsuits. It is required this information must be reported to the Oregon Medical Board by the providers insurance, as a rule of law. Unfortunately, this reporting is not often enforced by state medical boards. Additionally, if an institution, such as a hospital, is being held liable for medical malpractice it is possible the practicing physician’s name will not appear on the claim at all, and information about that specific case will not be found on the physician’s record. 

However, state boards do compile medical malpractice claims, as they are able or willing once reported, and provide them to the public through the Oregon State government website, where they can be searched.  As long as the incident was reported, information will be accessible here. 

State medical boards are wholly responsible for licensing, investigating, disciplining and rehabilitating physicians if they face disciplinary charges. They are responsible for taking actions such as suspending or permanently revoking the licenses of physicians who have been found negligent in their practice. 

If looking for physician records out of state, or for the records of a physician who practiced in a different state previously, there is a list of state medical boards and their websites via the Federation of State Medical Boards.

Administrators in Medicine (AIM) 

AIM is a non-profit organization for state board executives. It compiles licensing and disciplinary information from each state’s medical board in its DocFinder physician directory. Information from this database is contingent upon reporting to state medical boards.

While this database is not likely to have different information, it may have more and can help determine if a physician has been held liable for malpractice in other states.

Court Records

If a physician has been successfully sued, the state where the medical malpractice lawsuit was filed will have a record of it. Most of the time the records are available online, but if not, the county clerk can provide a copy of the records. Additionally, if the physician in question practices in two or more states, each state, and the appropriate county records must be searched, as the records can only be found on each state’s particular database. 

None of these resources guarantee information regarding suits brought against a particular physician. Further research might include talking with your community, reviewing news articles and performing online searches for a specific doctor’s name, employment history, and determining whether or not a physician is practicing privately and why.

Continuing to Practice Medicine after a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit?

Even after all of the research has been done, there are very likely still outstanding questions due to both the prevalence of confidential settlements and the overall track record of the Oregon Medical Board—which seems to imply a lack of predictability and demonstrates inconsistency in it’s reporting and rulings. 

One of the most common and difficult questions is, if a physician has numerous medical malpractice lawsuits against them, will they be able to continue to practice? 

This can be tricky as state medical boards, like the Oregon Medical Board, have the final say, from choosing whether or not to investigate a complaint against a physician (not a part of the settlement or trial process), to deciding which disciplinary action should be taken. And even then, there are no cut and dried expectations when it comes to what the repercussions of negligence are for a physician. There are cases where physicians have injured many patients and continued to practice, even after proven negligence has occurred. 

There is a distinction worth making in the function of medical malpractice lawsuits and the disciplinary actions taken by a board.

Compensation and Discipline

At the end of the day, a medical malpractice case functions to compensate the injured party. Medical malpractice cases are either settled in or out of court, and are paid by the practicing physician’s insurance. There are rarely outcomes from medical malpractice cases that directly impact a physician’s ability to practice medicine. At worst, they may need to pay a fine ordered by a judge. 

The medical malpractice ruling does have to be reported to the state medical board by the practicing physician or healthcare worker’s insurance, even if it is settled confidentially. Whether or not this record will be available through the appropriate channels is another matter, entirely. 

In the case of the Oregon Medical Board, they make it clear that even if a medical malpractice case was filed against a physician, though, they still may not choose to investigate. Even if a medical malpractice case was filed and a payout was ruled in favor of the injured party, they have no obligation to take any action against the physician in question and do not consider a court ruling a presumption that medical malpractice did in fact occur. 

Therefore it is understood that medical malpractice cases exist only to compensate the injured party and have few negative repercussions for the physician if a state board chooses not to pursue further action. That being said, if there are numerous medical malpractice claims against one physician, this may encourage a state board to launch an investigation and take action against a physician, possibly revoking their license, but this is rare.

When Would a Physician Lose their Medical License?

A physician can lose their license after severe negligence, ongoing negligence, or inappropriate behavior toward patients. Some of the most common reasons a physician can lose their licenses are:

Substance Abuse 

A common cause for physicians loss of licensure is substance abuse. Unfortunately, there is not sufficient support when it comes to many physicians dealing with very high levels of stress. This can cause many physicians to suffer from substance abuse disorder. A recent study showed that at least 69% of physicians misused prescription drugs at least once in their career.

Insurance Fraud

Physicians can be investigated and ultimately lose their license if they engage in insurance fraud. Charging uninsured patients different fees than insurance company payees, using incorrect insurance codes, and changing medical records are a few ways a physician may commit insurance fraud.

A physician can lose their license for fraud due to various reasons including, false billing, changing medical records, mischarging, or overbilling. 

Medication Violations

The Oregon Prescription Monitoring Program is a tool that allows physicians to closely monitor their prescriptions and the distribution of the medications. Physicians can be held liable for medical malpractice if they prescribe the wrong medications, prescribe the wrong dosage of medications, or fail to prescribe necessary medications. 

Final Thoughts

It can take years for a board to take action against negligent physicians, and there is currently no outside oversight for state medical boards. Taking the time to do research before facing a big procedure or looking for ongoing treatment can be the first step in protecting yourself. 

At the end of the day, asking questions within your own community about which physicians they trust and the quality of care they provide, is one of the best starting places. Once a trusted physician is found, it is much easier to build a network and get referrals to specialists, confidently.

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