June 21, 2009 — -- President Obama presses forward on health-care reform this week and will be asking doctors to get on board. Yet he is not endorsing limits on malpractice awards, one of their key concerns, because Obama thinks a cap would be unfair to patients who have been hurt.
One Federal program, the National Practitioner Databank, is supposed to keep tabs on bad doctors , which is supposed to improve patient care patients and could also head off costly lawsuits. But, an alarming study by the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen reports that the program is not working -- giving way to medical horror stories.
When Dr. Robert Ricketson found he had no titanium rod to use for the back surgery he was performing, he opted to stick in a screwdriver instead. Three corrective surgeries later, his patient was left a bedridden paraplegic. It turned out Ricketson had previously lost his medical license in Oklahoma and Texas, but was still able to find work in Hawaii.
Problem doctors are to be reported to the data bank by state medical boards and hospitals. But a new study by Public Citizen says hospitals, particularly, are failing to do so.
It was estimated that there would be between 5,000 and 10,000 doctors reported to the data bank ever year. In fact, the average has been only 650 cases a year, according to Public Citizen.
"About half the hospitals in the country had never reported one doctor out of the couple hundred-thousand doctors that are on the staffs of those hospitals," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, the director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group.
"It's just not believable. The only answer is: The hospitals aren't doing their job disciplining doctors," he said.
The data bank was created nearly 20 years ago to allow hospitals and HMOs to check a doctor's competence. Hospitals are required to report any physician who is disciplined by having hospital privileges taken away for 31 days or more.
What this report found is that some hospitals get around that by disciplining doctors for just 30 days or letting them take a leave of absence instead of facing sanctions.
Why would a hospital do that?
Dave Swankin, the president of Citizen's Advocacy Center, may have an answer.
"It's cultural. Nobody likes turning anybody in," Swankin said. "People just don't like doing it. Doctors don't like doing it."
There's also the financial motive: Hospitals may not want to sanction doctors who bring in lots of money.
The American Hospital Association (AHA) argues hospitals have numerous ways of handling doctors who fail to provide the best care possible. They released a statement saying that the number of reports received by the National Practitioner Databank correlates to jeopardized patient care is inaccurate.
"Hospitals are actively involved in a wide variety of efforts to continuously improve care and talk publicly about the care we provide and that the patient care can't be measured by the number of reports received by the National Practitioner Databank, " the AHA stated.
Study authors disagree and point out that there are no federal penalties for hospitals that fail to report bad doctors. They say that must change now.
ABC News' Paula Cohen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.