Let patients know about bad doctors

Medical malpractice suits embarrass doctors, but the patients need to know about them to make informed decisions.


Virginians could soon have a new tool to help them choose their doctors. Both the Virginia House and Senate have passed versions of a bill to require the state Board of Medicine to post information online about medical malpractice suits and disciplinary action against doctors. With the growing infatuation with medical choice, patients’ decisions should be informed.

Doctors work hard to preserve health, but accidents happen. Sometimes they are due to negligence, sometimes they are just unforeseeable complications.

Before going under the knife or just in for a routine checkup, patients might like to know if their doctor has a propensity for mishaps. After all, a small percentage of doctors are repeat offenders who generate a majority of malpractice payments. Patients understandably might wish to stay away from them.

The bill making its way toward law would ensure patients have access to that critical information. A Web resource would list medical malpractice judgments and settlements within the last 10 years, as well as disciplinary actions.

One argument against providing such information is that patients do not have the medical training to judge the outcomes of alleged bad doctoring. It’s a legitimate concern, but more data is almost always better than less. Patients who see a decision against their doctor can discuss it with him to clarify the situation.

Besides, many in the medical establishment encourage patients to make decisions about their health care needs all the time. Patients weigh in on what drugs or treatments they wish to receive despite not being doctors themselves. The ideal situation has all the facts on the table and a dialogue between doctor and patient leading to an informed decision.

The medical board could go one step beyond the law, too. When malpractice information appears online, the board could also provide explanatory notes about the decision and how a particular doctor’s rate of complaints compares to others in his specialty. Some specialties are more prone to litigation than others.

No one likes to have his mistakes aired publicly, especially when it could affect business. Doctors’ discomfort, however, is small reason to leave patients in the dark when choosing to whom they will entrust their health.
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