For the first time, consumers can easily check whether North Carolina doctors have settled or lost medical malpractice claims or been convicted of crimes.
The N.C. Medical Board announced Monday that it has expanded its Web site to include malpractice settlements or judgments and criminal records for its 35,000 licensed physicians and physician assistants.
The expansion comes in response to a law passed by the General Assembly in 2007 that requires the board to publish malpractice payments, misdemeanor and felony convictions, hospital suspensions and discipline by medical boards in other states.
About 3 percent of North Carolina doctors and physician assistants were required to report incidents under those new guidelines. Less than 1 percent, or 221, have reported malpractice payments since May 2008, which is when the reporting starts. The Web site, www.ncmedboard.org, allows consumers to search by a doctor's name, or by city.
The N.C. Medical Board had been criticized in recent years for failing to protect people from bad doctors. To increase public confidence, the board pushed for the new law, which would allow it to share more information.
Before last week, consumers could use the Web site to find a doctor's license status, address, educational background and disciplinary history in North Carolina. All public disciplinary documents from the board's files are also online.
But before the new law took effect, the board was prohibited from sharing information about malpractice suits and hospital discipline.
Malpractice claims and criminal records are already public in county courthouses and with law enforcement agencies.
But the medical board's expanded physician profile makes the information far more accessible to consumers.
Opposition to posting
The board's proposal to post malpractice data met opposition from doctors and hospitals, the insurers that write medical malpractice policies and the lawyers who defend doctor and hospitals against patients' lawsuits.
One of the main concerns opponents raised involved posting settlements from past years.
Initially, the board planned to publish all malpractice settlements and judgments going back seven years. But opponents said settlements are often made with secrecy clauses that both sides agree to and are legally binding. Posting data from the past could breach those agreements, opponents argued. And some threatened litigation over the matter.
Board lawyer Thomas Mansfield said about 25 licensing boards across many states already publish malpractice information. Mansfield said he knows of only one state where there was a legal challenge over retroactively posting medical malpractice payments, and the effort failed.
The N.C. Medical Society, a private association that lobbies on behalf of 11,000 physician members, also questioned the dollar amount of settlements and judgments to be posted. At one time, the board planned to include all payments of $25,000 or more.
The opponents got the attention of legislators, who stepped in to change the board's plans.
The General Assembly passed a bill that directed the board to start publicizing settlements made on or after May 1, 2008. The threshold was set at $75,000.
The time frame for malpractice judgments is different. Judgments, which are decided by judges or juries after a trial, will be posted from seven years ago, starting with Dec. 1, 2002.
Payment amounts and information that identifies patients will not be published on the board Web site.
Information about felony convictions and medical board discipline will stay on the Web site indefinitely.
Medical society officials still have concerns that the board's Web site doesn't distinguish between "frivolous" lawsuits and cases that involve "quality of care." Spokesman Mike Edwards said the society thinks "there needs to be a little bit more substantive review" about which cases are publicized.
Many medical malpractice payments are made for reasons unrelated to poor medical care, he said. It can be cheaper to settle the claim than to litigate. Payments that are related to poor medical care should be published. "Consumers should know that," Edwards said.
The medical board Web site includes several disclaimers saying that malpractice payments don't always suggest negligence and that some specialties, such as obstetrics and neurosurgery, draw more suits than others.
email@example.com or 704-358-5078