Physician Web page limits its data Maryland board won't give charges, lawsuits online

December 27, 1997|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

A year after revealing an ambitious plan to create online profiles of every doctor in Maryland, the state physician board has begun a pared-back Web page that shields the most controversial of the records from public view while making them privately available to hospitals.

As originally conceived, the project would have given consumers a quick reference source for the public information, which routinely takes days or weeks to arrive from the board by mail. Those records include listings of malpractice suits and pending disciplinary charges.

After vigorous opposition from physicians, the board decided to eliminate from the public version of the Web page any information about unresolved lawsuits or charges. By law, the board must release the information, but it is choosing to do it only the old-fashioned way, by mail.

Hospitals that reach the page to check doctor credentials will be able to get access to a version containing the information.

Dr. Suresh C. Gupta, chairman of the Board of Physician Quality Assurance, justified shielding the records from consumers, saying doctors' reputations are at stake.

Even one malpractice suit could cause someone to unfairly reject a competent doctor before knowing whether the accusation had any merit, he said.

"The hospital people are in the health care field and understand what it means to have a malpractice suit against a physician," Gupta said. "They know what different issues mean. The consumer is not able to make that determination."

The head of one of the largest state consumer groups said he is sympathetic to the board's concerns.

"We understand why they're not just throwing [malpractice] case numbers onto the Web page," said Daniel J. Pontius, executive director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group. "Without the right context, there is too much potential that good doctors could get hurt."

But several national consumer advocates take a different view. Among their concerns is that public records are being treated as less than public by virtue of easy electronic access.

"If it is public information in the files, consumers should get the same access to it," said Carole Glade, executive director of the National Coalition for Consumer Education.

"No one piece of information is going to give anyone the full

picture. But this is a source, and it's basic information. Consumers should have it."

Similar records are routinely available for consumers checking the track records of contractors or auto repair shops, she said.

"Historically and traditionally, we have held the medical profession at a different standard of practice," Glade said. "The reality is, consumers today are getting much more comfortable discussing this kind of thing. That probably makes some doctors uncomfortable."

Nearly everyone looking at the issue seems to agree that it is important to give consumers as much context as possible.

For instance, it is important to know the high failure rate of medical malpractice cases, they say. Many consumers also might be unaware of the high-risk nature of some medical specialties, such as neurosurgery, that makes them more vulnerable to lawsuits.

"That kind of information certainly can be provided on the Web site," said Linda Golodner, president of the National Consumers League.

"If I were considering a doctor who had charges pending against him, I would want to know," she said. "I think with our legal system people certainly are aware that people are innocent until proven guilty. Some will go check further. Others won't. But it's useful information, and I think it's important for consumers."

Maryland's information can be found through www.docboard.org, a site created by Administrators in Medicine, group representing medical board directors nationwide. The site has similar pages for 10 other states. The site shows the status of a doctor's medical license, area of medical specialization, date of medical school graduation and office address.

If a doctor has been disciplined by the board, the file will say so and suggest contacting the board for details. Gupta said the board hopes to post disciplinary records on the Web page soon.

He said it is possible the board will reconsider what information to post.

Although doctors and physician board members are not challenging the status of pending disciplinary and malpractice complaints as public records, they do not want them easily accessible, Gupta said. Doctors have repeatedly recoiled at the idea of consumers "browsing" for information they don't really need but are curious about: the records of a former physician, or of the family practitioner down the street.

Maryland's consumer page is consistent with those of most other states offering doctor records electronically.

Only Massachusetts, which is the most aggressive state in posting doctor records online, has a substantially different approach.

Consumers searching records of doctors there are able to retrieve a wide range of information about any state-licensed physician, including private disciplinary actions taken by hospitals and criminal convictions.

The General Assembly shelved two bills this year that would have created a site similar to Massachusetts'.

One bill, sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, would have created a clearinghouse in the attorney general's office to distribute health information from a number of agencies. It would also have created a Web page to give consumers details about malpractice judgments and hospital disciplinary actions, which are not public records in Maryland.

Pub Date: 12/27/97

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