Medical Horror Stories Remain a Reality

Hospitals failing to report problem doctors; offer temporary leave of absence

ByABC News
June 21, 2009, 6:13 PM

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.