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March 10, 2003

Just 7 Percent of New York’s Doctors Are Responsible for Two-Thirds of Malpractice Payouts, Study Shows

Doctors Should Focus on Patient Safety Crisis, Not Non-Existent Liability "Crisis"

ALBANY, N.Y. – A small percentage of New York doctors are responsible for a large portion of malpractice payouts, and the medical community should focus on weeding out bad doctors to improve patient safety and lower malpractice insurance rates over the long term, according to a report released today by Public Citizen, a national nonprofit consumer advocacy organization with more than 11,000 members in New York.

Information in the federal government’s National Practitioner Data Bank shows that just 7 percent of New York’s doctors are responsible for 68 percent of malpractice payouts. Conversely, 82 percent of New York’s doctors have never made a malpractice payout since 1990. Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, released the report today at a press conference with New York Public Interest Research Group and survivors of medical negligence.

"Contrary to assertions by the medical and insurance lobbies that ‘skyrocketing liability exposure’ threatens patient safety, the real threat is posed by the few dangerous doctors who commit most of the medical malpractice in New York," Clemente said.

According to the report, New York’s Dangerous – and Undisciplined – Doctors:

  • Between 2,967 and 6,608 people die annually in New York state hospitals due to preventable errors. The costs of these errors to New Yorkers is between $1.1 and $1.9 billion a year, far more than the annual cost of malpractice premiums paid by New York’s doctors ($873 million). This doesn’t include the thousands who are injured annually due to malpractice or those killed by malpractice outside the hospital setting.
  • As a group, New York doctors’ malpractice insurance premiums have remained flat for a decade, betraying claims of a liability "crisis." The total amount New York doctors paid in malpractice insurance premiums in 2001was $873 million, compared to $821 million in 1992. Discounted for inflation, this represents a decrease.
  • Just 1 percent of New York’s doctors are responsible for 22 percent of all medical malpractice payouts, according to information in the National Practitioner Data Bank that covers the period between September 1990 and September 2002.
  • The state agency that regulates New York doctors, the Board of Professional Medical Conduct, is failing its citizens. Only 10 percent of New York doctors who made three or more malpractice payouts were disciplined, according to the data bank. Further, just 28 percent of New York doctors who made 10 or more malpractice payouts have been disciplined.
  • By disciplining doctors with two or more malpractice payouts and preventing them from becoming "repeat offenders" with three or more payouts, the state board could eliminate 45 percent of the total number of medical malpractice payouts. If the state board could prevent doctors with three payments from having to pay a fourth, nearly one-third of malpractice payouts would be eliminated.

New York has five of the country’s 10 most dangerous – and undisciplined – doctors, based on the number of malpractice payouts listed in the data bank. These doctors have made at least 17 medical malpractice payments worth at least $2.75 million. One doctor has made 33 payments totaling $4.9 million as a result of lawsuits alleging improper performance of surgery. Another surgeon made 18 payments totaling $3.8 million as a result of lawsuits alleging improper performance of surgery, foreign objects left in patients and a failure to properly monitor patients. Their names are not available to the public because Congress has refused to authorize public access to the data bank.

"It’s time that the doctor’s lobby stopped pointing fingers at the survivors of medical malpractice and at the survivors’ lawyers," Clemente said. "We can all sympathize with those doctors who face temporary increases in their malpractice insurance premiums, which are caused by the economics of the insurance industry. But most of our sympathy should be reserved for the many New Yorkers who are permanently scarred by medical negligence. Taking away people’s legal rights to hold health professionals and institutions fully accountable will only further jeopardize patient safety."

In addition to effective doctor discipline, states should require hospitals and other health care providers to institute meaningful risk prevention programs, Clemente said. Hospitals should implement measures to curb errors, such as using computers to order and track prescriptions (these can cut errors by 55 percent), requiring proper hand-washing to reduce infections, addressing the nursing shortage and reducing the long hours of medical residents.

To view the report, click here.

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