In New York, information about a doctor’s disciplinary history is available online.
That’s if you know where to look. And if you understand the quirks of the state’s disciplinary system. And if you can make sense of the information once you’ve found it.
As Investigative Post reported, pediatric surgeon Dr. Kathryn Bass, director of trauma at John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital, was put on probation by the state health department last April. In settling the case against her, Bass agreed not to contest one charge of negligence and denied all the other charges, including gross negligence, negligence, incompetence, failure to maintain adequate medical records, and failure to properly supervise surgical trainees.
Charges by state lead to probation for Children’s Hospital surgeon
The 22-page document laying out the charges and the settlement has been online for months. But the fact that documents like this are public – on an obscure state website – doesn’t mean that patients know where to find them, consumer advocates caution.
A Google search for a specific doctor doesn’t necessarily make information about misconduct charges easy to find, either. A recent search for “Dr. Kathryn Bass,” for instance, brought up the health department charges as the sixth result. But the link is titled with a nondescript snippet – “BRD 258238” – that doesn’t mention professional misconduct or disciplinary action.
In 2017, almost 1,400 doctors, across the state, were on probation. There were more than 75,000 doctors licensed in New York, as of January 2019. Being put on probation is a less serious disciplinary action than a license revocation, or suspension, but more serious than a fine or reprimand.
The health department places doctors who’ve been charged with misconduct on probation when it determines they can be “rehabilitated or retrained in acceptable medical practice,” according to a state report.
Doctors currently on probation have been charged with misconduct ranging from prescribing drugs “without medical rationale,” to practicing medicine “while impaired by alcohol,” and engaging in an “inappropriate personal physical relationship” with a patient while treating her, state records show.
The onus is on patients to find this kind of information – rather than on hospitals or doctors to proactively disclose it. If a doctor is on probation, for instance, there’s no legal requirement that they tell patients.
New York isn’t unusual in this regard. Only California requires doctors who are on probation to disclose this to patients – the result of a first-in-the-nation law passed last year that goes into effect in July – and only under certain circumstances.
Even so, New Yorkers do have better access to information about their doctors’ disciplinary histories than residents of most states. The state health department’s “physician profile” site pulls together various kinds of information about doctors – malpractice lawsuits, disciplinary actions, any current limitations on their license. A 2016 analysis by Consumers Reports rated New York’s website on disciplinary actions against doctors second-best in the nation.
Yet the health department’s own review in 2015 found that the site could be easier to find via search engines, and that some of the language – especially the sections on disciplinary actions – could be easier to understand. A health department spokesperson said improvements to the website are “ongoing” and “will be completed as soon as possible.”
The website is a “buried treasure” because “they never tell anyone it exists,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, which advocated for the website’s creation, almost 20 years ago. “Consumers should be empowered with the information the state already collects.”
Even if you find out about charges against a doctor, reading them can involve scrolling through a long document, dense with medical and legal jargon.
For example, one charge against Bass reads: “Respondent failed to timely and/or adequately evaluate and/or diagnose and/or treat Patient E for signs and/or symptoms of bowel obstruction and/or bowel stricture.” (She denied this charge.)
The language of settlements, which is how most cases are resolved, can also be confusing. Under state law, doctors can agree “not to contest” charges as part of a settlement. Having been charged with a crime, or with professional misconduct in another state, is a charge in and of itself. In some cases, doctors agree not to contest the fact of having been charged – even when they’ve already admitted to the original charges, or pled guilty in criminal court.
In one instance, a physician assistant admitted to New Jersey regulators that she’d given patients Botox injections without a valid medical license. But in New York, she simply “did not contest” the charge of having been disciplined in another state.
What’s more, popular doctor review websites, like vitals.com and healthgrades.com, which often appear high in search results for doctors, can be misleading. Vitals.com, for instance, highlights Bass’s 30 years of experience, five-star reviews from several patients, and “Top Doctor” award, but makes no mention of the charges against her, or the fact that she’s still on probation. A disclaimer on the site says: “Vitals does not recommend or endorse any particular healthcare provider whose information or ratings appear on this website.”
Companies that give out “Top Doctor” awards aren’t always a reliable indicator of quality, either. A health care journalist at the nonprofit reporting center ProPublica recently won a “Top Doctor” award – despite having never graduated from medical school or earned a medical license.
And doctors who’ve been disciplined aren’t necessarily disqualified from membership in the kinds of prestigious professional organizations that inspire patients’ trust. Looking up your surgeon on the website of the American Board of Surgery, for instance, can confirm whether they are board-certified, which ABS says shows a “commitment to professionalism, lifelong learning, and quality patient care.”
If a board-certified surgeon is disciplined, ABS “almost always” takes action that mirrors the state’s, said Aly Maloney, a spokesperson for the organization. If a doctor was put on probation, for instance, ABS would likely put them on probation as well – with one key difference. It wouldn’t be made public.
“ABS doesn’t broadcast if someone is under probation in our own organization,” Maloney said.
Bottom line: if you want to check out your doctor, or your child’s doctor, start with the state’s “physician profile” site, click on the “legal actions” tab, and check if they have any current limitations on their license. For information on disciplinary actions, click through to the “OPMC” link under “licensee actions.” Or, you can search directly for disciplinary actions against a doctor on the OPMC website.