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Clifford’s Note’s: A delicate question that mixes law, medicine: How to help a client find a doctor.

Clifford's Note's October 3, 2014

Chicago Lawyer: Clifford’s Note’s

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by Robert A. Clifford

A friend of the firm recently was diagnosed with a brain tumor that has to be operated on immediately. She called and asked our medical-malpractice team, “Who is a good neurosurgeon?”

As a personal-injury attorney for nearly 40 years, a question I am often asked is, “How do I find a good doctor?” It may sound like a strange question to ask a lawyer, but when one realizes how little information is available regarding doctors’ abilities and performance, it isn’t that strange at all.

What the potential patient really is asking is, “Have we ever sued that doctor in a particular specialty, or do you know of other lawyers who have known of mistakes that a doctor has made?” It’s a difficult question to answer sometimes because mistakes can involve a number of people, particularly if you are talking about surgery or a number of simultaneous medical issues going on. But even finding a good internist or primary care doctor can be difficult given the doctor’s experience, temperament, time constraints, responsive office staff, appointment wait time, days and hours available, fees, follow-up and overall caring about people.

Another issue that comes into play is whether the patient belongs to a PPO, HMO, Medicare or the Affordable Care Act, which some have complained accepts narrow networks. Various plans limit the patient to those who are in-network, but oftentimes that just means that the patient has to pay a higher per-visit payment or surgeon’s fee for an out-of-network doctor. The National Committee for Quality Assurance issues report cards on health plans at tinyurl.com/CLncqa. Hospitals have banded together to form private databases on patient satisfaction and physician quality, among other information. Perhaps one day they will be open to the public to allow patients to choose a doctor from information gathered by the hospitals themselves.

Some people like to find the doctor who is closest to their home, an understandable issue as one gets older. Yet I have known people to fly to doctors in other states because of the national reputation of a physician or the uniqueness or specialty of the medical issues involved. Come with a list of questions, and don’t be afraid to get a second opinion.

Besides relying upon your lawyer, there are some proactive steps that a patient should take before deciding if a particular doctor is right for you. For example, Public Citizen’s Health Research Group’s website, citizen.org, has information about doctors who have been disciplined and fights to make that information public. It has a list of all states’ medical disciplinary boards with links on how to file a complaint.

The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, idfrp.com, regulates doctors in Illinois. The website also allows you to search and verify the physician’s license and to check for any disciplinary action that has been taken and the results of any complaints against specific doctors in Illinois. Check it out — go to the website and type in a doctor’s name and city or county in which he or she practices. The website provides hospital affiliations; types of insurance that are accepted, including Medicare and Medicaid; specialty certifications and when they expire; any malpractice judgments or settlements; criminal charges filed against the doctor; disciplinary action taken by the state medical board; and education, honors and awards. It can be very enlightening.

The American Medical Association also has a “doctor finder” on its website with a database of more than 814,000 doctors: tinyurl.com/CLdoctor. Of course, the doctor must be a member of the AMA even to be listed, and you must accept terms which include language that “Inclusion of a physician is not and does not imply AMA referral, endorsement or recommendation, nor does the omission of any individual indicate AMA disapproval.” It really provides the bare minimum of information and perhaps is more of a membership benefit for those who belong to the AMA.

Consumer Reports offers some advice on how to find a doctor, tinyurl.com/CLconsreport, but much of it is common sense. HealthGrades.com helps you choose a doctor close to your area and even offers patient satisfaction surveys on a five-star system. And a new website, gethealthpons.net, works on a coupon-purchased-online basis. Maybe that’s the wave of the future.

You can also learn whether your doctor is board certified from the American Board of Medical Specialties, certificationmatters.org/ is-your-doctor-board-certified.aspx. Board certified means the doctor has had two to six years of post-medical school training and passed a written and oral exam. Generally, doctors who are admitted to teaching and community hospitals are solid. Another mark of distinction is a doctor who has completed a residency program affiliated with a major university.

Keep in mind, a doctor is not necessarily a good doctor if he or she hasn’t been sued. Many people are reluctant to sue their physicians despite the negligence because they have developed a personal bond and trust. Sometimes the mistake can be corrected or isn’t life-changing, and the patient overlooks it.

By the same token, a doctor is not a bad doctor just because she has been sued. Even good doctors can have a bad day and can make terrible mistakes. They are humans, like everyone else, and can overlook something or have their minds on something other than the important issue right in front of them. It’s the life-or-death mistakes that are the hardest to forgive or forget. And then it all becomes about accountability.

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