Which is most likely to kill you: a head-on collision on Interstate 35 or a hospital visit? If air bags come to mind, guess again. According to a stunning 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine, as many as 98,000 patients die each year due to simple medical errors. That’s twice the number of crash victims—and all because of inappropriate surgeries, wrongly prescribed drugs, hospital infections, and doctor carelessness. (For a worst-case scenario, read “Dr. Evil,” the chilling account of Houston orthopedic surgeon Eric Scheffey.) How can you protect yourself from your physician? The good news is that once-impotent regulatory agencies, such as the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners ( TSBME), have been beefed up and given bigger sticks to swing, and hospitals today are more sensitive to malpractice and patient safety. Best of all, the Internet’s huge cache of data on doctors, hospitals, and medications means that patients can finally be true consumers. But it’s all up to you.
Paging Dr. Welby: Finding a Good Physician
To most of us, the idea of doctor shopping is somehow unseemly—or at the minimum, futile. Yes, it’d be nice to find that perfect golf partner, but practically speaking, here’s what you really want to know: Is the guy’s license current? Has he been sued for malpractice? Does he have a criminal rap sheet? Do some sleuthing to find out:
tsbme.state.tx.us, the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners’ site, offers explicit, easy-to-follow profiles of every licensed physician in the state. It tells you if your doc’s license is valid, what his specialties are, if the agency has ever had to discipline him, and if he’s been convicted of a felony. (Such convictions mean an automatically revoked license.) What you won’t find, unfortunately, is the number of times he’s been sued for malpractice or how much he’s had to fork over to plaintiffs; you’ll need your county clerk’s office for that, which can spit out his complete litigation history. But the site’s information is solid, if a little tedious to dig up (locating my personal physician in Dallas took me two tries, as did finding my wife’s uncle, a prominent Fort Worth pediatrician).
healthgrades.com, run by a for-profit health care information company out of Golden, Colorado, is faster and more thorough. It also includes tips, such as why and how you should value a physician’s board certification in a specialty, and automatically guides you to ratings of hospitals in your doctor’s area. The catch? A basic dossier will set you back $7.95.
Get a Second Opinion
No matter how much you trust your doc, if the diagnosis is serious, always find another brain to pick. You’ll fight incompetent, lazy, or greedy medical practice by making doctors compete for your trust. And don’t just go with any Joe Blow your guy recommends; do your homework and find the right expert. If you have to argue with your HMO about coverage, argue. If you lose, find a way to pay for it yourself.
How to Squawk if You Wind Up With a Quack
Call the TSBME hotline (800-248-4062) or file your grievance on its Web site. The board fields only “standard of care” complaints (a wrongly prescribed drug, an unnecessary procedure) or “non—standard of care” ones (behavior such as substance abuse or sexual misconduct). And if patience is a virtue, the process could wind up making you very virtuous. Complaints go through a wringer of investigations and audits, and only about three hundred physicians are disciplined as a result of the six thousand or so complaints filed each year.
Roads to Wellville: Finding a Good Hospital