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Thousands of doctors continue to practice, despite errors

In most cases, people would expect that a doctor who commits a medical error serious enough to result in patient injury or death would be cited by his or her local medical board. A recent study indicates, however, that in too many cases, state medical boards allow doctors who have committed serious medical errors to continue practicing, which may put other patients at risk.

USA Today examined data from the National Practitioner Database, a federal database established to help medical boards keep track of malpractice payments and disciplinary action levied by hospitals. Under federal law, when a doctor commits an error or faces discipline, this information must be reported to the NPD.

According to USA Today’s research, doctors who committed errors or were banned by hospitals tended to keep their licenses. Between 2001 and 2011, approximately 6,000 physicians had their privileges revoked by medical facilities due to mistakes that impacted patient care. About 52 percent of these physicians never faced any sort of discipline by their state medical boards and continued to be allowed to practice.

Even more worrisome, even doctors who committed the worst errors tended to keep their licenses. About 250 doctors who were cited by hospitals for errors that posed an immediate threat to patients never faced any sort of sanctions from their local medical boards. An additional 900 doctors citied for negligence by health care facilities kept their licenses and continued to practice.

There is little doubt that medical boards’ failure to act has impacted patient care. From 2001 to 2011, approximately 10,000 doctors paid money to resolve medical malpractice disputes. Of those 10,000 doctors, roughly 800 were responsible for 10 percent of the total amount paid. The average payment by these 800 doctors was approximately $5.2 million.

One of the major problems with the current system of physician licensure is that medical boards are entirely reactive. They depend on reports to the NPD made by hospitals to make decisions about whether to take action against doctors who might be a threat to patient safety. Furthermore, state medical boards have limited resources to pursue proactive investigations.

In any event, it is clear that changes in the system are necessary to ensure that patients are not put at risk. Unfortunately, none of these concerns are new, but rather have been known to the medical establishment for many years. Hopefully, as these issues receive more attention, lawmakers and medical boards will take action to fix them.

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