Investigating Your Doctor’s Malpractice History

Many of our clients express concerns about the lack of readily available information about the malpractice history of their doctors.  Some are disturbed to hear that their physician had previously paid one or more malpractice claims, and surprised to learn that this information was available to them in the Physician Profiles section of the Board of Registration in Medicine website.  Others want to make sure that a record of the settlement or jury verdict they have received is publicly available for the benefit of other prospective patients.

Massachusetts insurers must report every malpractice settlement or verdict to the state medical board, which is public, and to a national data base, which is available only to health care professionals.  In 1997, Massachusetts became the first state to post these malpractice payments on the internet.  The available information was limited to ten years from the date of the payment, and to a notation that the amount of the payment was “below average,” “average” or “above average” for the specialty, along with the percentage of doctors in that specialty who had made malpractice payments.  Still, at that time, it was viewed as a promising first step in providing information to health care consumers.

However, as a recent article in the Boston Globe explains, Massachusetts has failed to keep pace with other states in providing information to health care consumers.  The Massachusetts Board of Registration regularly removes records for physicians who are no longer licensed in Massachusetts, leaving those doctors free to move to other states and leave their Massachusetts history behind.

Even information supposedly required to be posted is often delayed or missing.  Insurers are sometimes slow to report settlement payments, often doing so only quarterly or even less frequently.  And once the information reaches the Board, there is usually an additional delay before the payment data is actually posted to the website.  And in most cases involving multiple health care providers, the insurer decides how the settlement will be allocated among the various defendants.  In these cases, some physicians who were deeply involved in a malpractice case may escape a public record if the insurer chooses to charge the payment to another provider.

By contrast, Florida makes available an extensive searchable database that includes all insurance payments for doctors and hospitals (and lawyers!), as well as a license verification that includes disciplinary information and criminal convictions.

Other New England states also lag behind.  For example, New Hampshire allows patients to look up physicians by name, and also to read a summary of disciplinary actions.  Rhode Island consumers also have access to a searchable list of physician disciplinary histories dating back to the 1980s.  But neither state publishes information about malpractice settlements and verdicts, unless the payment also results in disciplinary action–which is rare.

And all of the sites suffer from a common flaw: they do not provide information about pending lawsuits or disciplinary proceedings.  Since court cases and board prosecutions can take several years to resolve, that means that the most current information about a physician’s practice problems isn’t available, unless a consumer makes the effort to go to the courthouse or the board of registration office.  By the time the result is actually made available to the public, the medical care in question occurred many years earlier.  This time lag suffers from two problems: a physician may have improved his practices or gained further education and experience so that he is truly a better doctor–or other patients may have been harmed in the intervening years.  The first is unfair to physicians; the second is dangerous to the public.