sons brain injury from surgical error brings license info reform

When Patty Skolnik’s 22-year-old son Michael was having seizures and his doctor recommended brain surgery, she did everything she could to make sure the surgery would go well. Through Colorado’s doctor-licensing board, she researched the neurosurgeon he had referred and found no negative information — although she didn’t find much information at all. She decided to go forward with the surgery.

That turned out to be a disastrous mistake. Surgical malpractice during the 2001 procedure left her son with a permanent, catastrophic brain injury, and he died three years later. Worse, she found out later that there had been diagnostic errors and the surgery had been unnecessary.

She also learned that the neurosurgeon had a history of surgical malpractice claims in another state.

Outraged that she had been denied key information about the man who had her son’s life in his hands, Patty founded an advocacy group called Citizens for Patient Safety. In 2007, her group succeeded in passing the Michael Skolnik Medical Transparency Act to ensure that Colorado medical boards make full information about health care professionals available to consumers.

Once-Reluctant Physicians Ultimately Helped Pass Colorado’s Patient Safety Law

In most states, medical licensing boards provide very limited information about physicians’ histories. Although some do list records of formal complaints, disciplinary actions and medical malpractice payouts, lack of such information in a doctor’s file can be misleading, because it may take years to be finalized and included.

Some doctors were initially reluctant to change that, fearing more detailed information would unfairly smear the reputations of basically good practitioners and lead to more medical malpractice claims.

“To be an informed consumer, you have to have the tools to get the information you need to make a decision,” Patty Skolnik countered. Even if it’s just a starting point for a discussion, consumers have a right to know about doctors’ track records, like the surgical malpractice claims against the surgeon responsible for her son’s brain injury.

Patients should be trusted with that information instead of simply being denied access, she argued and, ultimately, physicians came to agree. For one thing, a more complete record gives doctors valuable information to use when making referrals. It also gives hospitals and clinics the information they need to justify getting rid of bad apples.

After some negotiation about the terms, physician groups helped get the transparency law passed in 2007 without opposition. This year, the law was expanded to include chiropractors, dentists, optometrists, psychologists, physician assistants, physical therapists and other licensed health care professionals.

Under the new law, detailed information is posted on the website of the Colorado Regulatory Agencies Department, including:

  • Information about past and existing licenses, board certifications, and affiliations with health care facilities and health care-related businesses
  • Any public disciplinary action, agreement or involuntary action to suspend practice or to limit hospital or facility privileges in any state or country
  • Any involuntary surrender of Drug Enforcement Administration registration
  • Any denial of medical malpractice insurance
  • Any criminal conviction of a felony or crime of moral turpitude

“The culture has really changed in Colorado,” said Dr. Jan Kief of the Colorado Medical Society.

Skolnik knows that doctors don’t mean to hurt patients, “but they do need to be accountable when they’re arrogant and use bad judgment and they’re not listening.”

Source: Las Vegas Sun, “Colorado transparency unique,” Marshall Allen, September 19, 2010

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