Few Clues On How To Track Rogue Doctors

There's no national tally of physicians who abuse their patients, but some say better reporting by hospitals and doctors and state medical boards would help. There is a database, which was established in 1986, but it also includes malpractice decisions and the information is not available to the public.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

So how common is the Philadelphia experience? And is anything being done nationally to help people protect themselves from bad doctors?

NPRs Joanna Silberner reports on the likelihood that there are more problem doctors out there that have come to light.

JOANNA SILBERNER: There is no national tally of physicians who abuse their patients. The only way to keep tabs is to count up stories in the media, like that of the abortion provider in Philadelphia, or the stories this spring about the pediatrician in Delaware who's facing several hundred counts of rape and assault of his young patients.

Dr. Sid Wolfe, who heads Public Citizens Health Research Group, doesnt know the total number of rogue doctors. But he says better reporting by hospitals and doctors and state medical boards would help.

Dr. SID WOLFE (Director, Public Citizens Health Research Group): You know more about the safety of your automobile than you know about the safety of your doctor. Thats just unconscionable.

SILBERNER: Dr. James Rohack, head of the American Medical Association, says any rogue physician is a matter of concern. But he doesnt think the numbers are large.

Dr. JAMES ROHACK (President, American Medical Association): You look at 880,000 physicians across the United States and you get one blip per year, or two blips per year that meets the press.

SILBERNER: There is a database out there, established in 1986. It's called the National Practitioner Data Bank. Hospitals, state licensing boards and government bodies are supposed to report when theyve taken actions against a physician. And the data bank includes malpractice decisions, as well. The information, though, is not available to the public.

Thats fine with AMA's James Rohack.

Dr. ROHACK: It was not designed to have information that would be helpful to the public to determine the quality of a physician. What the data bank is, it's got duplicate entries, inaccurate data and really incomplete and inappropriate information.

SILBERNER: He says malpractice information, for example, may just mean a doctor's insurer wanted to settle instead of fight. But Sid Wolfe says people need the information.

Dr. WOLFE: A doctor may have been thrown off the staff of a hospital or two, may have had 10 malpractice payouts, may have lost license in one or more states. No member of the public can find out about it cause many of those doctors are still practicing somewhere in some hospital.

SILBERNER: Individual states do keep tabs on doctors and post some of the information on Web sites. But how much you can find out all depends on where a doctor practices. Wolfe says two-thirds of state Web sites dont list hospital or malpractice actions.

State medical boards vary enormously on their willingness to punish doctors. And Wolfe says half the nation's hospitals have never reported a problem to the National Practitioner Data Bank.

Dr. WOLFE: Given that what we're talking about for these hospitals are at least a couple hundred thousand doctors, the odds that in a hundred thousand doctors, not one of them has done anything in 20 years to merit any kind of restriction, it's just not likely at all.

SILBERNER: The American Hospital Association says hospitals try to catch bad doctors before they have to sanction them and add them to the data bank.

Last year, Wolfe's group wrote a letter to the secretary of Health and Human Services, asking her to establish fines for hospitals that dont report rogue doctors to the National Data Bank. Thats yet to happen.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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