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Public can check doctors' background under new US law

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.313.7066.1165 (Published 09 November 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1165

Patients in Massachusetts can now get detailed information about doctors, including their disciplinary record and whether they have been sued for malpractice, after the state became the first in the United States to pass legislation requiring such information to be made public.

The Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine will make doctors' profiles available from this week, and access to the information will be possible on the Internet by May 1997. The profiles include professional liability claims, disciplinary actions, criminal convictions, as well as education and training, board certification, and honours and awards.

Dr Joseph Heyman, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, which drafted the legislation, called it “a victory for all patients in the state of Massachusetts.” He predicted that many other states will be quick to follow. “We know that patients want more information about their physicians, and this bill will meet patients' needs,” he said.

The move towards legislation started in 1986 in response to a series of critical articles in the daily newspaper the Boston Globe about the lack of disciplinary action against doctors who were being repeatedly sued for malpractice.

In response to the series the Massachusetts Teachers Association filed a profiling bill, which was vetoed in 1993 by the state governor, William Weld. The next year the medical society filed its own bill, which was passed in August this year.

A member of the public can receive up to 10 profiles from a single request. Generally three pages long, profiles begin with information about honours and awards, demographics, and education. The second page describes any professional liability claims made against the doctor, along with details of the settlement.

To lend perspective and to educate consumers, Dr Heyman said that this information is included with a full explanation of how often the doctor's specialty is sued for malpractice in comparison with other specialities. Dr Heyman argues that he wants the profiles to be beneficial to both doctors and consumers, and doctors are given the opportunity to review their profiles and to dispute incorrect information.

The new law, however, is not without its opponents. One of them is a former president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, Barbara Rockett, who argued that doctors who take on tougher cases are likely to be sued more frequently than their counterparts who take fewer risks. She said that if doctors know that bad outcomes resulting in a liability case will be public information they could be less inclined to treat these sicker patients.

But Dr Heyman argues that legislation regarding the publication of such information was inevitable and that the medical society was acting responsibly by being intricately concerned with the process. In addition he said that the society was working hard to educate the public through accompanying information with the profiles and through the media. “We see this bill as a win-win situation,” said Dr Heyman. “We're not trying to hide bad doctors, just be fair to those who are good,” he added.—TERRI RUTTER, medical journalist, Boston

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