New Yorkers less informed on medical malpractice investigations

By VALERIE BAUMAN | Associated Press Writer

New Yorkers know less about which doctors have been investigated for medical malpractice than people in other states do, and the agency responsible for disciplining physicians does little to root out misconduct and malpractice, according to state officials.

Public Citizen, the national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader, issued a study on Thursday and urged New York to improve the system.

State Health Department Spokeswoman Claudia Hutton said other states generally allow people to access information on doctors who are currently under investigation for malpractice, something New York law prohibits.

“We get about 4,000 complaints a year,” Hutton said. “About 800 of them, we believe, are substantiated and we open investigations on those. There’s a difference between an accusation and a substantiated accusation … we’re not trying to hide things.”

The Office of Professional Medical Conduct is responsible for investigating doctor complaints, but state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli recently criticized its work.

“OPMC management concentrates little effort on proactively identifying cases of potential misconduct or ensuring that they have received all complaints,” according to the comptroller’s report released in September.

OPMC opens an investigation against a doctor only when the settlement amount from a lawsuit is more than $500,000, a judgment was made against the physician, or if a mother or child dies during child birth.

“A lot of the statutes dictating how the OPMC operates should be reviewed,” Hutton said. “They haven’t been reviewed in 10 years.”

The system for disciplining doctors could be reviewed in the next year. Gov. Eliot Spitzer has put together a medical malpractice insurance task force that is expected to report back to him soon on what drives the high costs in New York.

Only about 1 percent of doctors in New York state are responsible for generating the highest malpractice payouts and can’t find commercial insurance coverage as a result. It can be difficult for patients to determine if their doctors are considered too “high risk” for insurance companies, according to the report issued by Public Citizen.

The report said patients pay the price for the lack of oversight for bad doctors _ sometimes with horrific errors like surgeries on the wrong limb or the wrong patient. It recommended reducing the costs by minimizing errors and improving the state’s oversight.

While that may seem obvious, Joan Claybrook, the president of Public Citizen, said New York hasn’t created a way to track all incidents of doctor and hospital error that result in harm to the patient.

“If the state cleans up its act, the problems that the insurance companies and doctors bemoan will disappear, and receiving medical care in New York will become a lot safer,” Claybrook said.
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