A Few Doctors Just Can’t Learn From Their Mistakes

If you choose to file a medical malpractice suit, it’s surprisingly likely that the doctor you’re suing has already been hit by one, or two or three claims in the past. A new study, which will publish in the New England Journal of Medicine on January 28, 2016, found that almost 32% of the malpractice claims resulting in a payout for patients between 2005 and 2014 were filed against the same 1% of practicing physicians.

“Repeat Offender” Doesn’t Come Close To Describing These Docs

Researchers at Stanford and the University of Melbourne took data from the US National Practitioner Data Bank, a clearinghouse for doctor information established by Congress in 1986, eventually reviewing 66,426 malpractice claims filed between January 2005 and December 2014.

54,099 doctors had lawsuits filed against them during that period, and if claims were evenly distributed among doctors, you’d expect each physician to have been sued a little more than once. But digging into the data revealed a very different result. Around 21,256 of the malpractice suits were filed against the same 541 doctors. That’s a little more than 39 claims for every one of those physicians, who the study’s lead author, Stanford professor David Studdert, dubbed “frequent flyers.”

Minority Report Medicine

One of the potentially ground-breaking implications of the study is that we might actually be able to identify physicians who are more likely to commit medical errors – before they harm patients.

Repeat offenders, Studdert says, “look[…] quite different from their colleagues.” A doctor’s likelihood to be hit by multiple malpractice lawsuits broke down along specialty, gender and age:

  • Neurosurgeons, orthopedic surgeons, general surgeons, plastic surgeons and obstetricians-gynecologists were twice as likely to get sued multiple times as internal medicine physicians.
  • Psychiatrists and pediatricians were least likely to be sued more than once for malpractice.
  • Male doctors are 40% more likely to get hit by multiple lawsuits than female physicians.
  • Older physicians are around 3 times more likely to be sued more than once than doctors younger than 35.

But the most important variable was how many times a doctor had been sued in the past. Doctors who had already paid out two claims in the past were about twice as likely to pay out another, than doctors who had only settled one case. That trend only increased the more times a physician was sued: doctors who had paid out three claims were three times more likely to pay out a fourth. Physicians with six or more previous claims in the books were 12 times more likely than other doctors to end up settling again.

Has My Doctor Been Sued Before?

The upshot? Check to see if a doctor has ever been sued before you step into the waiting room. Here are three ways to find that information:

  1. Check the Federation of State Medical Boards website. Just specify your state and search any physician’s name. That will bring you to a page listing the doctor’s state certifications, educational background, licenses and, under “Actions,” whether the state has disciplined them for any violations before.
  2. You can also check with your state’s medical board, to find out if the doctor’s license has ever been suspended for a violation. Here are links to every state’s medical board, courtesy of the American Medical Association.
  3. To get the low-down on actual lawsuits, you’ll probably have to dig into court records. These are public in most states, unless a court has explicitly sealed the records for some reason. Visit the National Center for State Courts to get started. First, you’ll want to find your state’s link, which should take you to the appropriate website. The idea is to do a “docket search,” looking for any cases that list the physician’s name as a defendant.

Do everything you can to find out whether or not your physician has made serious mistakes in the past. Doctors should have a clean bill of health, too.

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