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How Many Doctors will History of Malpractice are Still Treating Patients?

It goes without saying: All medical patients assume that the doctor treating them is capable of providing the care they need free of error. Most of us assume that the medical professionals that are working in hospitals and clinics are vetted by those making hiring decisions at these facilities. Just like we expect trucking companies to only hire safe truckers and tax providers to only hire competent accountants, it is obvious that hospitals should only hire those who will do their job appropriately.

In fact, considering the literal life and death potential outcomes of medical work, its reasonable to assume that due diligence is even more pronounced in these settings. There is simply little room for error. Those medical professionals who are shown to pose an unacceptable risk of harm to patients can not be allowed to keep treating unsuspecting community members.

Slipping Through the Cracks
Amazingly, time and again doctors with a history of committing medical errors continue to practice–often bouncing from one location to another, simply moving somewhere else after botching a job. This problem was recently highlighted in a USA Today story. The piece explores how doctors who are disciplined in one state and loss their clinical privileges are often still working on patients somewhere else.

But the problem is not isolated to doctors moving to new jurisdictions. Some state medical review boards are under fire for their relatively lax standards that allow error after error to be committed without significant punishment.

For example, the USA Today article shares information on one doctor who committed a string of mistakes over a decade. The doctor had a particular problem with medication errors, up to and including personal drug abuse. In one case, a patient of his died as a result of the doctor’s prescribing a deadly mix of painkillers and psychiatric drugs. Less than a year later a second patient died from another painkiller dosage mistake. Amazingly, it wasn’t until several years after that, that the doctor actually lost his ability to practice in the state.

This is not an isolated problem. Thousands of doctors commit a string of errors and face little penalty. The story notes, ” Many of the doctors have been barred by hospitals or other medical facilities; hundreds have paid millions of dollars to resolve malpractice claims. Yet their medical licenses – and their ability to inflict harm – remain intact.”

Interestingly, a review of the medical error data shows that malpractice is relatively concentrated–not all doctors make mistakes. Over the past ten years about 100,000 doctors had to make some form of payment for medical errors (most relatively small). Yet, a tiny fraction of that number, 800 doctors, were actually responsible for 10% of all payouts. But of that group of error-riddled professionals, less than 20% faced any state sanction at all.

We can do better than this. No matter what, it is unacceptable for dangerous doctors to continue to treat (and harm) patients. Review boards need to act swiftly to ensure every patient life is spared by getting the worst doctors out of the hospitals.

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