I remember a funny Seinfeld episode called “The Fatigues.” Elaine promoted an incompetent and frightening employee (who wore Army fatigues to work) at the J. Peterman Company so she wouldn’t have to deal with him. The rest of the staff revolted.
Unfortunately, Elaine’s management approach isn’t purely fictional. In healthcare settings, some hospital leaders follow the Elaine approach when it comes to dangerous doctors.
When hospital quality improvement or medical peer review activities uncover problems with surgeons or physicians, spineless hospital leaders work out sweetheart deals with the doctors involved to let them go to another hospital rather than face medical staff discipline. They may be motivated by not wanting to rock the boat or face a lawsuit from a disciplined doctor kicked off the medical staff.
This dishonest practice allows dangerous doctors to continue to practice subpar medicine on unsuspecting patients. Under federal law, any time a hospital modifies a physician’s staff privileges, meaning either reducing or terminating them, that action has to be reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank.
When hospitals are considering hiring or granting medical staff privileges to a doctor, they are required to search the Data Bank for any instances of prior disciplinary history. The same is true when they are reviewing a doctor for re-credentialing.
When hospitals don’t take appropriate disciplinary action against dangerous doctors, it renders the Data Bank useless. When patient safety problems go unreported, it creates an environment where bad doctors can move from one hospital to another, or even set up shop in another state.
While recently working on a medical malpractice case, we learned that a Waco surgeon had moved there after having problems in a different state. After a series of bad patient outcomes linked to his care, he packed up and moved to a third state.
Recent investigative journalism suggests that underreporting plagues Texas. In February 2020, WFAA reported that two thirds of Texas hospitals have never reported even one bad or dangerous doctor to the Data Bank.
Of course, Texas law keeps this type of information under lock and key. Hospital lobbyists long ago secured laws that keep hospital committee, peer review, and quality improvement activities privileged. This means that they can never be discovered or used in a medical malpractice case. The law means that hospitals usually get off scot-free when they allow error-prone physicians to continue practicing medicine.
There are some things that patients can do, though, when considering a physician or surgeon:
• Check the Texas Medical Board website to find out about the doctor’s educational and work history
• Ask or find out how long the doctor has been practicing in the same location
• Ask or find out where the doctor has staff privileges (the hospitals or facilities where the doctor can work) and how long they’ve been in place
Potential red flags include a doctor who has moved around a lot or has changed hospital affiliations frequently.
If you’ve been seriously injured because of poor hospital or medical care, then contact a top-rated experienced Houston, Texas medical malpractice lawyer for help in evaluating your potential case.