If you will need any form of difficult medical testing or treatment, you will need to choose your doctor wisely. You'll want to do some research about the doctor to be sure his credentials, experience and abilities meet your needs, and just as important, be sure he has not built a track record of disciplinary problems or malpractice.
This information may not be easy to find. Transparency, as it relates to medical errors, is often hard to come by. While many of the directory listings or doctors' ratings websites provide some disciplinary information, rarely is it complete or current. In some cases, it is up to the doctors themselves to self-report problems, so you can imagine how incomplete that information may be.
Here is an example of why this step is so important: In 2007, rap star Kanye West's mother, Donda West, chose a doctor named Jan Adams, MD, to perform her plastic surgery. She may have visited his personal website (now removed from the internet) and been swayed by the information she found. What she probably did not do was visit the California Medical Board website report on Dr. Jan Adams, which would have shown his felony and misdemeanor convictions plus the many malpractice suits he had lost. Sadly, Donda West died shortly after the surgery.
One problem is that a doctor can amass a malpractice track record in one state, but pull up stakes and move to another state, get licensed and begin again with a clean slate. Malpractice in one state does not appear on the new state licensing record. Michael Skolnik died after brain surgery in Colorado. The surgeon had recently relocated to Colorado from Georgia, where he had lost a malpractice suit based on the same surgery. No record of problems existed on his record in Colorado.
Even when malpractice or disciplinary information can be found, it may require an explanation of terminology or circumstances. Judging a doctor simply on that doctor's malpractice track record may not provide the whole story.
For example, some of the physician's ratings or rankings sites provide indicators of how often a surgeon is "successful." What they don't tell you is that some surgeons, in order to keep their ratings high, will not accept certain patients that may be at higher risk for problems. That better record may indicate a surgeon is better than another with a higher mortality rate, when in fact, another surgeon who is willing to take different risks may be a better choice for some patients.
Certain specialties require a clearer look, perhaps based on a patient's expectations rather than a real problem with the doctor. A pregnant woman who had no prenatal care during pregnancy may file suit against her obstetrician if the baby is born with an abnormality. You may find she has blogged about the lawsuit and how terrible that doctor was. What you aren't reading is that she was at risk for problems with her baby to begin with and the doctor may have done all she could to improve the situation. You may also not know that the lawsuit was later dismissed. The doctor's reputation will be sullied because the patient didn't take responsibility.
Once problems move in to the realm of the law, where lawsuits are filed, settled early, dismissed or won, then it becomes impossible to get all the details we wish for. Wise patients, though, know that hunting for malpractice or disciplinary information is worth the trouble, even if it is incomplete.
How to Research Malpractice and Disciplinary Actions Online
This kind of search is intended to find any unusual, legal or newsworthy information there is to find.
- Begin by choosing a specific doctor to research.
- Go first to your state's medical licensing board. Search for the doctor, using his or her name or location.
- You may, or may not find relevant information in your state's license lookup. If you find a doctor's license has been suspended, then you can stop looking for more information about that doctor, of course. You may still be able to find some basics. But remember, this information is probably not current, so you'll want to look further.
- Leverage any basics you find into more information by doing a search in a search engine: "Dr. Joseph Smith" (be sure to put those quotation marks around the name to keep that phrase intact) then additional identifiers, such as the words malpractice or lawsuit or sanction or problem or whatever you choose. You may also use the word blog or news as it could turn up even more information, including other states in which he may have been licensed and practiced previously.
- For malpractice information purposes, ignore any information provided by the doctor himself, such as press releases or a personal website.
Here's an example: Dr. Steve Tu is an ophthalmologist in Manchester, Connecticut.
- If you go to the Connecticut Medical Board, you'll learn that Dr. Tu is licensed to practice as a DO in Connecticut. If you read very closely, it also says that in 2004, there was a "Memorandum of Decision" against him, but there are no details.
- Now go to your favorite search engine, and do a search for
"Steve Tu" malpractice and/ or "Steve Tu" sanction
Your results will be dozens of pages of links to information about Dr. Tu - for problems he had when he owned a Lasik surgery practice in Rhode Island, and was disciplined for taking patients' money and not performing their promised surgeries.
- Warning: There may be more than one doctor with the same name as the doctor you are researching. Double check that you are getting information about the right one, in the right place.
Taking the time to check on malpractice and disciplinary records will help you make important doctor choice decisions.