The public file on Dr. C. Thomas Folkemer at the state physician board would put most patients at ease. It shows that the Anne Arundel County doctor has been a family physician for 23 years, has never faced a disciplinary charge, and has privileges with nine HMOs and two hospitals. In September, the board renewed his license for another two years.
The file does not tell of the woman who complained that Folkemer failed to test a breast lump that proved to be cancerous. Or of the heart attack that killed William Milliker two weeks after Folkemer allegedly dismissed his chest pains as nothing serious. Or of Beverly Lewis, 39, a mother of two young sons who died in 1992 of complications from a leg infection that her family said went untested and untreated by Folkemer and others until it was too late.
Folkemer paid substantial settlements to resolve the cases, according to court records and sources familiar with the complaints. But no clues about that are included in the board's public file, either.
"Whoever they're protecting, it's not us," said Betty Hood of Millersville, whose family sued Folkemer last year over the death of her stepfather, Charles Carroll. It was the fifth malpractice suit brought against the doctor since 1985, the fourth involving a patient death.
"Why can't you find out about the person in whose hands you're putting your life?" she asked.
That question will help shape a debate in coming weeks as the state Board of Physician Quality Assurance decides how much to tell the public in a new online service that will give consumers instant profiles of every doctor in the state.
Depending on their decision, board members could make Maryland a trailblazer in providing physician data to the public, or leave patients with little more than a high-tech tool for learning a doctor's alma mater. The first public meeting on the issue will be at the board offices today.
With the growth of managed health care, the need for information about doctors has never been greater, say patients and malpractice lawyers. Many patients covered by health maintenance organizations are scrambling to choose new doctors about whom they know little or nothing.
"You're kind of left in the dark," said Alana Bame of Public Citizen's health research group in Washington. "If you're buying a car, you can go to a 'blue book.' But when it comes to your own health or your own body, it's very difficult."
The board had planned to provide online lists of malpractice cases and disciplinary charges, which are public record but often hard to get. But it is reconsidering under pressure from doctors. Physicians angrily attacked the plan on learning of it last month, saying it would create an unfair and inaccurate picture of their careers. They noted that many good doctors are sued for malpractice.
"There are a lot of complaints filed, and only about 20 percent come to any kind of payment," said Dr. Timothy T. Flaherty, an American Medical Association board member. "I empathize with the public interest -- it's not an easy issue."
Folkemer declined to discuss the lawsuits brought against him. In court records, he said that Milliker's heart attack could not be predicted and that his electrocardiograph tests were normal. The case file and arbitration records say the case was settled. An unsigned agreement also in the file says Folkemer was to pay Milliker's widow $182,000. In the Lewis case, the insurance company forced a settlement over Folkemer's objections, said Folkemer's lawyer, Ron Shaw.
"We didn't think he did anything wrong in that case," he said.
The attorney said the patient in one of two pending suits died from a rare clotting disorder that is almost impossible to diagnose. The other suit involves the 1993 death of Hood's stepfather, Charles Carroll, whose family says Folkemer failed to diagnose and properly treat his diverticulitis. Shaw said Carroll died after Folkemer had transferred his care to a specialist.
"I know physicians who are the best around who have more suits than that," Shaw said of the five previous and pending cases involving Folkemer. "And I don't know of any doctor who hasn't had a patient die."
But the number of malpractice suits filed against Folkemer is unusual for a general practitioner. Odds are one in 10 that a physician will be sued sometime in a career; they are one in five in such high-risk specialties as neurosurgery or obstetrics, said T. Michael Preston, executive director of the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland (Med-Chi), the state medical association.
Folkemer said in a brief interview his patients have never questioned him about the lawsuits, only three of which the state doctors board had in its records. "I would assume [patients] feel it's not relevant," he said.