Statement of Frank Clemente Director, Public Citizen's Congress Watch

New York’s Dangerous – and Undisciplined – Doctors
March 10, 2003

 

I am happy to be here today on behalf of Public Citizen’s more than 11,000 members in New York State. For more than 30 years Public Citizen has been a national leader in the fight for strong patient safety measures and quality health care. Public Citizen’s Health Research Group periodically publishes a ranking showing the effectiveness of each state medical board on a number of measures – including how well they are disciplining problem doctors. (It is on-line at www.questionabledoctor.org. Public Citizen is also a national leader in protecting consumers’ access to the courts to hold individuals and institutions accountable for negligent conduct and companies accountable for manufacturing defective products.

The New York State Medical Society, and its counterpart the American Medical Association, have declared New York State to be in "crisis" when it comes to the malpractice liability system. They have claimed "skyrocketing liability exposure" threatens to limit patient access to quality care.

All I can say is the best way to improve patient care and safety is to stop a small number of doctors from committing so much medical malpractice. That’s the real malpractice crisis in New York State. It’s detailed in the report we are releasing today entitled "New York’s Dangerous – and Undisciplined – Doctors." Here’s what we found:

  • 3,000 to 6,600 people die a year in New York State hospitals due to errors that are preventable. (That’s according to data we extrapolated from a famous Institute of Medicine report.) By comparison, 3,800 people die in New York State from AIDS and auto accidents each year combined. And there are many more injuries than there are deaths each year from malpractice and many deaths from malpractice occur outside the hospital setting.
  • The costs of these preventable errors to you, your families and society at large is enormous. It is as much as $1 billion to $2 billion a year. That is much more than the amount ($873 million) that New York doctors pay for malpractice insurance each year.
  • A small number of doctors are responsible for harming most patients. Just 7 percent of New York’s doctors are responsible for two-thirds (68 percent) of all medical malpractice payouts, according to data from the federal government’s National Practitioner Data Bank. Not only that, each of these doctors has made at least two malpractice payouts.
  • Even more distressing, just 1 percent of New York’s doctors are responsible for 22 percent of all medical malpractice payouts.
  • An unbelievable 78 New York doctors have made 10 or more malpractice payouts since 1990. Some of these repeat offender doctors didn’t stop with 10 – they went on to make 20, or 30, or more malpractice payouts for harm they caused patients.
  • The state agency that regulates New York doctors – the Board for Professional Medical Conduct – is failing you. Although Public Citizen has not done a comprehensive investigation of the Board’s activities, our analysis of its disciplinary rate for repeat offender doctors leaves a lot to be desired:

—The Board has only disciplined 1 out of every 10 (10 percent) New York doctors who made 3 or more malpractice payouts.

—The Board has only disciplined 1 out of 4 (28 percent) New York doctors who made ten or more malpractice payouts.

  • Let me give you one last very disturbing fact about New York – you appear to have a disproportionate share of the country’s most dangerous – and undisciplined – doctors:

—Using National Practitioner Data Bank information, we calculate that 5 of the country’s 10 most dangerous – and undisciplined – doctors have practiced in New York. These are doctors who have made at least 17 medical malpractice payments since 1990 and have paid injured patients at least $2.75 million. One of these doctors made 33 malpractice payments amounting to $4.9 million.

—These doctors have gone undisciplined by your medical board. The board never sanctioned them or withdrew their license. No hospital or health institution ever revoked their privileges.

—Unfortunately, we only know them by their serial numbers. Because of political pressure from the doctor’s lobby, Congress has refused to authorize public access to their identity through the National Practitioner Data Bank.

 

—If New York’s medical board could stop these repeat offender doctors from doing more damage it would result in enormous savings. For instance, by stopping doctors who have made 2 or more malpractice payouts from injuring a third time, the state board could nearly cut in half the total number of medical malpractice payouts. Stopping those doctors who’ve made 3 payments from making a fourth could cut malpractice rates by nearly one-third.

 

Most doctors are highly skilled and deeply committed to patient safety – 82 percent of New York doctors have never made a malpractice payout. But it is time doctors took a long look in the mirror at themselves and also looked at the small number of their most dangerous colleagues. It’s also time the doctor’s lobby stopped pointing fingers at the survivors of medical malpractice and at the survivors’ lawyers.

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 in court will only make the destruction caused by the few dangerous doctors more common. That is not only bad policy, it is also an injustice.