'Safe Patient Project' reveals medical horror stories

A new report that reveals numerous instances of doctors behaving badly but still practicing medicine illustrates the need for greater transparency in healthcare.

The report, part of Consumer Reports' Safe Patient Project, examined doctors on probation in California for offenses ranging from drug abuse to sexual misconduct to fatal, careless mistakes, but still practicing medicine.

Among the magazine's findings: a pediatrician who was disciplined 13 times for being severely impaired by drugs and an orthopedic surgeon who ignored his patient's femur fracture to the point that the man's leg had to be amputated.

A significant percentage of the 1.25 million doctors who have been licensed in the U.S. since 1990 have been subject to malpractice suits or disciplinary action. Fifteen percent of those doctors--about 192,000--have paid out at least one malpractice settlement, according to the publication, while 50,000 others have been the subject of unfavorable actions by state boards or other governing bodies.

The Department of Health and Human Services keeps records of all of these issues, but the only people allowed access to the database are hospitals, law enforcement and certain other agencies. The Safe Patient Project maintains that consumers have a right to know this information.

"The onus shouldn't be on patients to investigate their physicians," said Project Director Lisa McGiffert. "Doctors on probation should be required to tell their patients of their status."

Medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the U.S. and yet in the past, hospitals and physicians have relied on a "culture of secrecy" to reduce their exposure to potential litigation. As the healthcare paradigm shifts to a patient-centered, value-based model, efforts at transparency, such as Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital's medical errors blog, are gathering steam across the country.  

Hospitals that adopt an approach of accountability, such as offering patients apologies and explanations of what went wrong while involving them in the effort to prevent future similar errors, are finding that what victims of medical errors want isn't necessarily money. Rather, they want to be heard and understood and to know that something is being done to keep the error from happening again. 

To learn more:
- read the report
- here's information about the Safe Patient Project