Doctors' Malpractice Histories Kept Secret
When you need a doctor, you want someone who knows what they're doing.
But a NewsChannel 5 investigation has found there may be secrets about your doctor that you don't know.
After back surgery 10 years ago -- an operation she says her doctor botched -- Judy Cummings sued the doctor, George William Davis.
And she soon discovered she wasn't alone.
"We were in a long line of people that were suing him, and he had done this to a lot of people," Cummings tells NewsChannel 5 consumer investigator Jennifer Kraus.
But you'd never know it by going to the state's website on doctors.
It's there that you're supposed to be able to check out a doctor's background, to find out if they've ever been disciplined or successfully sued for malpractice.
The law says that if a doctor has paid more than $75,000 in a judgment or settlement, the doctor must report it to the state.
But our NewsChannel 5 investigation found Dr. Davis has been sued for medical malpractice at least 14 times since 1999 and, in the end, ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages.
But none of his lawsuits, none of his million dollar payouts, are listed on the state's website.
"That's unacceptable," says Bill Mason of Tennessee Citizen Action.
Consumer watchdog groups like Citizen Action call what we found a serious problem, especially for anyone facing surgery or any other complicated medical procedure.
"If you can't get good information, then you can't do for your own body, your own health, your own life and death issues, what you can do for your car," Mason adds.
And it's not, we found, just Dr. Davis.
Our investigation uncovered other doctors here just like him.
"I think any lawyer you ask will tell you that there are certain physicians that can be identified," says lawyer Gary Blackburn.
We asked Blackburn and other attorneys about doctors they've successfully sued.
And every attorney we asked found doctors who had failed to list their malpractice claims on their state profiles.
"I don't think it's rare at all," Blackburn says.
Judy Eads with the state Health Department calls it "one of the weak areas of the system."
She insists they're doing all they can.
Yet, a state audit in 2003 found information on the website was both incomplete and inconsistent.
The Health Department said back then it was going to do more to make sure Tennesseans were getting accurate information about their doctors.
"People are entitled to that," Eads says.
She claims they now use information from a national data bank and insurance companies to verify doctors' information. She also says they keep an eye on malpractice lawsuits in the news.
Yet, we found a Knoxville psychiatrist who made headlines after a jury ordered him to pay a patient more than half a million dollars.
But we checked his online profile, and there was no mention of it.
"I have no way of saying how many's fallen through the cracks," Eads says.
Brian McGuire with the AARP says the system that's supposed to protect Tennesseans from bad doctors obviously isn't working -- and the people of this state he says deserve more.
"If channel 5 can find out that there are doctors that are not reporting what they're suppose to report, then surely the department of health can do that," McGuire says.
"What really needs to happen now is for legislators and people in the administration who hear this story to step up and do something about it cause we know we have a problem here."
For Judy Cummings walking is now an ordeal.
She and her husband did get a $1.5 million judgment against Dr. Davis, but -- as we showed them -- there's no mention of it on his state profile.
"My goodness, somebody's messed up somewhere," Judy Cummings says.
That means there's nothing to warn others of what he's done to patients in the past.
"His past record looks like he's perfect," Mike Cummings says, "and we know better."
After Dr. Davis was ordered to pay the Cummings, he filed for bankruptcy.
So they don't expect to ever see a dime.
His lawyer now claims the doctor didn't know he had to report the claims to the state.
The Health Department is now asking Davis to explain his failure to report his judgments, and they're promising to do better.
As for the malpractice judgments, many doctor say they don't necessarily mean he or she is a bad doctor.
But the state says it's supposed to be reported so that you can decide for yourself.
Tennessee's new health commissioner Susan R. Cooper released the following statement to NewsChannel 5:
"According to state law, it is the responsibility of the individual medical professional to update his or her practitioner profile within 30 days of any event required to be reported to the Tennessee Department of Health. The Department has and will continue to pursue formal disciplinary action for non-compliance."
"As a part of my appointment last month as Health Commissioner, the Department is evaluating processes and procedures aimed at improving efficiency. This includes the process to keep current the practitioner profiles of medical professionals in Tennessee."
See also the National Institute of Health's guide, "Choosing a Doctor of Health Care Service"