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Researching a Doctor’s Medical Malpractice History

When a potential patient comes across a medical malpractice case in researching the history of a doctor, when should the potential patient be concerned?

Before seeing a doctor for the first time, a potential patient should research a doctor’s background to see if the doctor has been sued. This can be done at courthouse records or in state medical board license databases. State boards do not receive reports for all medical malpractice judgments or arbitration agreements. In California, for example, attorneys sometimes settle for exactly $29,999 so they do not reach the $30,000 threshold for reporting. Several sources need to be checked to get complete information.

There is no exact connection between a doctor being sued for medical malpractice and substandard medical care.  It is not realistic for a doctor to never make a mistake.  A doctor being sued once may not be a big risk.

Many cases settle before trial so there is no final determination by a fact finder that a doctor did not perform as a reasonable doctor in the situation would.  Further, in most settlements, there is no admission of guilt. When cases settle, it does not mean the doctor was at fault.  A doctor with malpractice insurance may hand over a lawsuit to an insurance adjuster who wants to get rid of a case rather than pay for defense costs.  The insurance adjuster generally is not concerned with the reputation of the doctor.  A lawsuit might focus on the doctor when it was actually the medical facility s/he works for at fault.

What prompts worry is when a physician has a pattern of medical malpractice payouts.  Usually a potential patient should question a doctor’s standard of care when the doctor has at least 3 malpractice cases.  Not many doctors have multiple malpractices payouts, according to an analysis of the National Practitioner Data Bank completed for Consumer Reports by Robert E. Oshel.  The National Practitioner Data Bank collects information on medical malpractice and disciplinary actions on doctors and other licensed healthcare practitioners. According to Oshel’s study, done before 2008, about 15 percent of the nearly 1.25 million doctors practicing since 1990 have had at least one medical malpractice payout.  However, less than 2 percent have had two or more payouts.

Medical malpractice lawsuits do not always affect a doctor’s license to practice medicine. Even doctors with large payouts against them may not get disciplined by a state licensing board.

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