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Editorial: Patients need doctors’ data

Say you just moved to a new town, and you’re trying to find a new doctor. Would you consider it important to know whether the person to whom you are entrusting your health has been the subject of any malpractice judgments ó or DWI arrests?
Most of us would answer in the affirmative. We would consider that information we have a right to know as part of making an informed health-care decision, just as doctors want detailed medical histories from patients as a part of ensuring proper care. We also should be able to get that information without spending hours sifting through court records or disciplinary case files.
The N.C. Medical Board agrees. The board, which regulates the state’s doctors and other practitioners, has proposed creating comprehensive profiles for all of the state’s physicians that would include information about medical malpractice payments or judgments. The profiles, posted on the board’s Web Site, would also include any felony criminal convictions and certain misdemeanor convictions, including the illegal use of drugs or alcohol.
The addition of this information would greatly enhance the basic licensing and credential information currently available on the site. Consolidating the data in one place also would make it much easier for medical consumers to quickly review background information. However, the proposal has raised some concerns about whether the disclosures might unfairly tarnish doctors who have felt pressured to settle a suit for a nominal amount, rather than take their chances with a unpredictable jury and a potentially lengthy trial. For that reason, the N.C. Medical Society opposes posting malpractice information unless there’s verification by an outside review that the patient received inadequate treatment.
The skyrocketing liability insurance premiums that doctors pay, particularly in certain specialties, attests to the problem of opportunistic lawsuits and overly sympathetic juries. Good doctors can be sued by disgruntled patients who have no real basis for a complaint, and they can be unfairly blamed for outcomes that lay beyond their control. However, the remedy for that risk isn’t to restrict disclosure of malpractice judgments. The best solution is to provide consumers with more information, not less. The board’s proposal would address that issue by noting whether the malpractice case led to any disciplinary action against the doctor, and doctors also could include their own explanation in the case. That would let consumers decide for themselves how much weight a malpractice award should carry.
The Medical Board’s proposal to expand online medical profiles follows the recommendations of the Consumer Access to Physician Information Task Force, which was formed a couple of years ago after the Federation of State Medical Boards sharply criticized the N.C. board for the lack of information on its site. Thus far, more than 20 other states have adopted the federation’s recommendations to make comprehensive information available regarding doctors’ records. It’s a healthy sign that the N.C. Medical Board has taken the recommendations to heart and plans to follow through.

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