The Boston Globe Spotlight Team’s latest two-part series on a New Hampshire surgeon’s troubling malpractice settlement record has prompted many readers to ask: How do I know if my doctor is safe?
The team’s work included an interactive national database to help guide the public to helpful information about their physician. But how much information that is available depends heavily on the state you live in, and what data its medical board makes public.
Spotlight reporter and longtime health care reporter Liz Kowalczyk explains how you can use this interactive database, and other tips to learn more about your doctor.
1. What is the best way to learn about problems in my doctor’s past?
There is no easy way. But you can find some information through your state’s medical board, which licenses doctors. Each state, however, discloses different levels of information. Some states may only confirm that a specific person is a licensed doctor and where they got their training; others may also show if a doctor has medical malpractice verdicts or settlements, hospital-initiated discipline and criminal convictions.
Keep in mind that medical malpractice settlements are not an admission of wrongdoing, and many widely well-regarded doctors may have settled one or two claims over a lengthy career to prevent protracted litigation. But if you have a state that offers that type of information, it reflects a relatively strong level of transparency to help the consumer.
Our series on Dr. Yvon Baribeau showed he had settled 21 malpractice claims, however the New Hampshire board of medicine does not list any of them on its website.
2. What does the Globe database tell me?
Our database tells readers about the medical board in their state, as well as provides links for you to look up a specific physician in that state. The database shows how often each medical board disciplines doctors for serious infractions, how many staff the board employs to protect consumers, and how much information the board posts about doctors’ backgrounds.
3. Will my hospital tell me if a surgeon or other physician was disciplined or has a troubled malpractice history?
In all likelihood, the hospital will not. And neither will the doctor. While it can be intimidating to question a doctor, patient advocates encourage patients to ask lots of questions, including how many times a surgeon has done the procedure being considered by the patient and the serious complication rate.
It’s ultimately up to a hospital to ensure its physicians are safe and to revoke privileges of troubled doctors. It’s difficult for the average person to evaluate a hospital’s integrity on this; but if you know people who work at the hospital, ask what they know. And be on guard for surgeons who are being kept on, despite a poor record and staff dissent, such as the case in our series.
4. What are other ways for me to know about a doctor’s record?
If your state medical board does not publicly disclose doctors’ malpractice histories, another option is to search court records, either online or in person. This will not turn up claims that are settled before they reach court, but it may uncover lawsuits and possible settlements. Word of mouth is also very helpful. It’s important to ask family and friends, as well as a trusted primary care doctor, about their experience with a particular specialist or surgeon.
5. If I learn about a settlement or a disciplinary record, what should I do?
You can request more information from the medical board through a public records request. You can also ask the doctor for further explanation.