By Jon Singer
Each year in New York State, as many as 7,000 people die in hospitals as a result of medical negligence. Between 300 and 400 doctors are punished each year, and about 8,000 complaints are filed. While physicians at times try to cover up their mistakes and some problems are not reported, legally all of the reported information is available for consumers to know.
Blair Horner, executive director of NYPIRG, points to the New York State Physician Profile Website, a site that is run by the New York State Department of Health. “It’s a great website, but nobody knows it exists,” says Horner.
This is because when legislation was passed in 2000 to create the website, those lobbying on behalf of physicians were able to kill a provision that would have required the URL be posted in doctor’s offices and hospitals.
On the national level, there is the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDb). The website is hosted by the US Department of Health And Human Services and provides information regarding issues such as reported cases of malpractice. “[Before the NPDb was created] the phenomenon of ‘state jumping’ was legion,” says Arthur Levin, Director of the advocacy organization the Center for Medical Consumers, regarding the high occurrence of these cases. But federal regulations prohibit NPDb information from being released to the public. Only health care entities such as hospitals, state licensing boards and approved private practices are eligible to receive a paid NPDb account.
“Hospitals, state licensing boards, HMOs, they are supposed to check before giving people credentials,” says Horner. In New York State, issuing a medical license is the responsibility of the State Education Department, as opposed to the Department of Health. “States do this differently,” says Levin.
Also, a characteristic of New York is the fact that reports of past actions can trigger an investigation, but do not necessarily stop the license from going forward. Basic questions regarding past convictions are on the application for a medical license. Sections 10 thru 14 on New York’s Application for Licensure and First Registration deal with crime. Section 12 asks: “Has any licensing or disciplinary authority refused to issue you a license or ever revoked, annulled, cancelled, accepted surrender of, suspended, placed on probation, refused to renew a professional license or certificate held by you now or previously, or ever fined, censured, reprimanded or otherwise disciplined you?” Levin says, “In some states, answering that question in the affirmative stops the process.”
Horner says that the largest area of malpractice lies in misperscribing drugs, which accounts for 20 to 25 percent of medical errors. “New York seems to pay pretty good attention to what goes on in other states,” says Levin, adding that in New York 40 percent of medical discipline cases are based on actions taken in another jurisdiction. “You cannot presume anything about a doctor,” he says.
Today, Levin cannot say exactly how common “state jumping” is. “Many doctors are only licensed in one state,” he says, adding that doctors don’t need a license to do health policy work.
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