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How to Check a Physician for Prior Incidents of Malpractice

Written by Berkowitz

Medical malpractice report documents and the stethoscope.

There are several possible ways to find out if your doctor has been the subject of any previous malpractice lawsuits. The most reliable way is to check with the relevant state licensing board. Other ways include checking the Physician Profile at the Department of Public Health, looking up your doctor on the internet, etc.

Malpractice Complaints That Are Typically Asserted against Doctors

There is a myriad of possible malpractice claims that might be made against a doctor. The following are some of the most common:

  • Misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis
  • Drug prescription errors: Prescribing the wrong drug or the wrong dose, or failing to consider drug interactions when the patient is taking multiple medications
  • Unnecessary surgery
  • Premature discharge from the hospital
  • Faulty discharge instructions

How to Investigate a Doctor’s Malpractice Record in Connecticut

A malpractice lawsuit is usually a matter of public record in Connecticut. The following are instructions on how to research the malpractice record of a doctor licensed to practice in Connecticut.

1. Check Court Records

If your doctor has ever been sued in Connecticut (or any other US state), a record of the lawsuit exists and is being kept by the local court. Some of these records are available online, but even if you can’t find them online, you can pay for a paper copy of it unless it’s confidential (and it usually isn’t). Just call the County Clerk’s office in the county where your doctor practices.

Remember, however, that simply being sued doesn’t necessarily mean that your doctor committed malpractice – only that he was accused of it. Likewise, if the case was dropped, that fact alone doesn’t mean your doctor didn’t commit malpractice. The case may have been dropped because your doctor agreed to a private settlement.

2. Check Your Doctor’s Physician Profile with the Department of Public Health

Any doctor licensed to practice in Connecticut is required to complete a Physician Profile. The Physician Profile provides information such as the doctor’s medical education, post-graduate training, disciplinary actions, and malpractice payment history. The Physician Profile also classifies the amount of a given malpractice payment as below average, average, or above average.

3. If Your Doctor Has No Physician Profile, Verify His License

Your doctor might not have a Physician Profile posted online if (i) he just came to Connecticut or if (ii) his medical license has lapsed. If not, look up his license number on the Connecticut License Lookup website. If you cannot find his license number here, deep suspicion is warranted.

4. Check for Disciplinary Actions with the Connecticut Medical Examining Board

The Connecticut Medical Examining Board maintains a website that will allow you to look up the disciplinary record of any physician whose license number you can identify. Remember, a malpractice judgment or settlement, strictly speaking, is not a disciplinary action.

Nevertheless, disciplinary action is relevant to the doctor’s competence. The same conduct that led to disciplinary action may have led to a  malpractice lawsuit and vice versa. The disciplinary entry should include the doctor’s name, license number, address, penalty, and the date the penalty was imposed. It does not identify the offense for which the doctor was sanctioned, but online records go back almost 10 years.

5. Check for Licensure in other States

Many doctors maintain medical licenses in more than one state. This is especially true in Connecticut – a small state that borders New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. The site docinfo.org should provide information about what other states your doctor may be licensed to practice in. You should also check the Federation of State Medical Boards.

Once you identify which other states have granted your doctor licenses, research their malpractice, and disciplinary record history according to that state’s rules.

6. Search for your doctor’s name on the internet.

Keep in mind that you might find another doctor with the same name as your doctor’s, especially if your doctor has a common name. A license number is a far better way to distinguish one doctor from another.

Interpreting the Results of Your Research: The Hard Part

Gathering information is one thing – interpreting it is another. What you are really looking for is not statistics on the doctor’s malpractice claim record, but a standard for judging the competence of your doctor. To this end, take into account the following considerations:

The Prevalence of Malpractice Lawsuits

The US is one of the world’s scariest places to be a doctor, at least in terms of the doctor’s likelihood of being sued. Americans file over 100,000 malpractice lawsuits every year, and over seven percent of all doctors are named as a defendant in a malpractice lawsuit every year. Add up those numbers over an entire career, and it becomes obvious that a doctor with a history of malpractice claims against him is the norm, not the exception.

Malpractice lawsuits are more common in some specialties than others. Even in low-risk specialties such as pediatrics, most doctors will be named as a defendant at least once by the time they retire. In high-risk specialties such as neurosurgery, the figure is about 99 percent. The older your doctor is, the more likely he is to have been sued. The magnitude of that likelihood has everything to do with years of experience and nothing to do with competence.

Successful vs. Unsuccessful Claims

If you consider a successful malpractice lawsuit to be one that resulted in a payment to the claimant, whether by courtroom verdict or by a private settlement, the picture looks different; around 80 percent of all claims are classified as unsuccessful. It is possible, however, that some of these “unsuccessful” claims represent situations in which a doctor agrees to a private settlement on the condition that the existence of the settlement is kept confidential.

Private Settlements

In a private settlement, the patient and the doctor (or his insurance company) agree on a payment to the patient on their own. A settlement may be reached before a lawsuit is filed, after a lawsuit is filed, or at any time before a final judgment is reached. If a settlement is reached before a lawsuit is filed, it will not show up as a malpractice lawsuit. It also might not even be publicly available, even if the doctor committed serious malpractice.

Settlements of Convenience

Malpractice lawsuits can be public spectacles, especially once they reach the trial stage. The longer they go on, the more damage they tend to inflict on the doctor’s reputation, regardless of whether the lawsuit is justified. It is for this reason (among others) that many doctors will agree to private settlements on frivolous claims. Despite these motivations, this will still count as a “successful” claim against the doctor, regardless of whether it ever had merit.

Settlements Made Out of Fear

Connecticut, unlike many other states, places no legal limits on how much a court can award a plaintiff in a malpractice lawsuit. This can place pressure on a doctor or his insurance company to settle a case to avoid the possibility that a court will award the plaintiff an outrageous sum. It also means that the fact that a doctor settled with his patient doesn’t necessarily mean he actually committed malpractice.

Safeguard: The Connecticut “Reasonable Inquiry” Certification

Connecticut, once faced with an avalanche of frivolous malpractice lawsuits, passed a law requiring plaintiffs to submit a certificate of good faith with the original malpractice complaint or, in some cases, up to 90 days thereafter.

Without a good faith certificate, the case will be dismissed. The certificate of good faith must be submitted by the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s lawyer, and it must declare under penalty of sanctions from the court, that:

  • The plaintiff and/or his lawyer conducted a reasonable inquiry into the merits of the malpractice claim.
  • The plaintiff and/or his lawyer have come to a good faith belief, based on a reasonable inquiry, that the lawsuit is justified with respect to every named defendant (since many malpractice lawsuits name more than one defendant).

The certificate of good faith must also include a signed letter from a medical expert (usually another doctor practicing in the same specialty, or a professional expert witness who is a former doctor himself), in which the expert, under penalty of sanctions from the court:

  • states, in his professional opinion, that the patient was harmed by medical negligence; and
  • provides detailed support of his opinion.

The ultimate effect of Connecticut’s good faith requirement is that, if you discover that your doctor was named in a malpractice lawsuit that was not dismissed due to failure to submit a valid good faith certificate, it is reasonably likely that the lawsuit was not frivolous and that the doctor may well have committed malpractice.

Physician Rankings

Some organizations rate the competence of doctors in order to help the public make wise choices about their health care providers. One of the most prominent is the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA). The NCQA gathers information about doctors and assigns a ranking. This information is public, and it can be found through the NCQA website. Malpractice lawsuits are not the only criteria used to grade the doctor, however.

Illusory Competence: Doctors Who “Cherry-Pick” Their Patients to Maintain High Ratings

Some doctors maintain high-quality ratings on physicians’ rating websites and have never had a malpractice claim filed against them. Some of these doctors maintain such high rankings because they are talented, skilled, and conscientious. For other doctors, the reason is that they “cherry-pick” their patients.

A doctor cherry-picks his patients by agreeing to treat only those patients who already enjoy an excellent prognosis. In a way, you could compare such a doctor to a boxer who amasses an undefeated record by agreeing to fight only weak opponents. Since successful treatment is more likely when patients are cherry-picked, the chance of a malpractice lawsuit or a disciplinary proceeding is smaller. The doctor’s reputation might be strong, but it is illusory.

We’re on Your Side

If you believe that you might be the victim of any form of malpractice, call Berkowitz Hanna today or simply contact us online for a free initial consultation. We are experienced fighters who absolutely will not allow our clients to be taken advantage of. And remember, not only are initial consultations free of charge, but you will never owe us anything, ever, unless we win your case.