Doctor quality? How do you know?

State discipline of doctors varies greatly from state to state

One of the failings of the American medical system, we are told, is that consumers are too passive and do not take an active enough role in their healthcare decisions. This argument is somewhat disingenuous, as it ignores the fact that millions lack adequate insurance coverage and their "choice" in the system may be little more than which emergency room they visit when an illness become critical and they are desperate.

Whatever their choices and decision-making process may be, if patients wanted to make informed choices concerning their doctors, what information would they want? Certainly, they would want to know if their doctor had been sued for malpractice by other patients. Unfortunately, that information may not be available.

The lawsuit, in all probability, is likely to have settled and there may be no public record of the terms settlement or grounds for the suit. But what about state professional boards? They would have public records of doctors within the state who have been disciplined, wouldn't they?

What do the records look like?

The New Mexico Medical Board, the agency responsible for licensing and disciplining doctors in the state, does have a website with access for the public. You can look up a doctor via their name or licensing number.

If they have a "public action" while licensed in New Mexico, it should display. What is a "public action?" According to their website, if a complaint is submitted that alleges a doctor "pos[es] a danger to public safety," the board will review the complaint " to determine whether the complaint alleges facts that constitute a violation of the laws administered by the Board."

If it finds there is a violation of that law and it goes to a formal hearing, "portions" of that investigation may be disclosed pursuant to New Mexico statute section 61-1-8. If this all sounds very lawyerly, it is, as it is written to protect doctors. This is not entirely unreasonable because a doctor is entitled to due process before he or she is disciplined or has their license terminated.

How does a patient judge?

It does create a problem for patients, as the information is so limited and spotty. A recent study of all fifty states has found that not only is this information not the easiest to extract from the state licensing boards, but also there is a very significant variation between the states in their discipline of doctors and other medical professionals.

This makes it very difficult to determine if doctors in one state are better or worse than those in New Mexico. In addition, it means that if a doctor has moved from another state to New Mexico, you as a patient have no way of telling if they should have been disciplined in that state, nor would you know they could have been disciplined in New Mexico, because the standards can vary so greatly.

Given this variation, it would be reasonable to argue that more uniform rules and standardization across the states would help consumer's better judge doctor quality.