The Chicago medical malpractice attorneys at Passen & Powell understand that hospitals work hard to protect their reputation in their community and their bottom lines. However, when that effort comes at the expense of the public health and safety of patients, something is wrong.
Twenty-four years ago, Congress became concerned that unethical or substandard doctors could avoid the consequences of their actions by simply changing hospitals or, if the situation were particularly bad, by moving out of state. Enter the National Practitioner Data Bank. Congress established the National Practitioner Data Bank to combat this risk, requiring that hospitals who discipline doctors – whether for ethical violations or more straightforward errors and medical malpractice – are required to report this discipline to the Data Bank. Thus, potential future employers, including medical organizations, practices, and hospitals, can check a doctor’s disciplinary history before hiring, without having to undergo the cumbersome and prohibitive exercise of attempting to check with the boards of all 50 states.
Our medical malpractice attorneys support the National Practitioner Data Bank and other commonsense, straightforward laws that can help to promote safe medical practices performed by competent physicians. However, a study by nonprofit consumer group Public Citizen, titled “Hospitals Drop the Ball on Physician Oversight,” suggests that the Data Bank is not functioning as an effective tool for preventing malpractice, for the simple reason that the law requiring reporting is regularly violated by U.S. hospitals.
For example, from 1990 to 2007, nearly half of U.S. hospitals did not make even one report to the Data Bank. In some states, this rate is even more extreme. In Ohio, for instance, fewer than 43% of hospitals have ever reported even a single instance of discipline to the Data Bank.
While we would like to believe that the quality of care in the U.S. is so high that half of the hospitals had no need to discipline even a single physician, our experience tells us otherwise. The only explanation for this report rate is that hospitals are not reporting their disciplinary measures as required.
For those who are not convinced, there is hard data. Over one three-year period, about 8,000 physicians were disciplined by state medical boards in the U.S. Over that same period, however, only about 3,000 reports were made to the National Practitioner Data Bank.
Indeed, Public Citizen’s report shows that hospitals are taking steps specifically targeted to avoid the law. As an example, hospitals are required to report to the Data Bank any suspension of a physician for longer than 30 days. So, many hospitals have stopped suspending doctors for this long, choosing instead to discipline physicians with shorter suspensions, a leave of absence, educational requirements, or some combination of these measures. No 30-day suspension means no report required: the physician is protected, and her future patients are not.
At other times, hospitals do not even bother to skirt the law, but simply ignore it. Public Citizen’s report identifies at least one instance (at a hospital in California) where a group of physicians who performed numerous unnecessary surgeries was not reported because of the prestige of one of the physicians and the funds those surgeries generate for the hospital.
It is small wonder that hospitals have not complied with the law. As of a few years ago, there had not been a single action taken, against any hospital, for failure to follow the law. Hospitals are not ignorant of the fact that there have been no consequences for noncompliance. As experienced medical negligence lawyers are well aware, without the realistic threat of punishment, through law enforcement or the courts, doctors and hospitals will do no more than is absolutely necessary to protect their patients. That is why literally tens of thousands of people die each year in the U.S. from preventable medical errors in hospitals.
This situation is obviously untenable. Doctors and hospitals cannot be permitted to simply ignore laws that are meant to protect the public. The lawyers of Passen & Powell add our voices to those demanding that these laws be enforced, and that hospitals be required to place protecting the innocent above protecting unethical or incompetent physicians, and their own bottom lines.
For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago personal injury lawyer at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.