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A hidden danger: Uninsured doctors

A recent investigative article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution revealed that more than 2500 doctors in Georgia do not carry medical malpractice insurance. That total represents almost 8% of all Georgia doctors.

All doctors try to avoid mistakes that lead to medical malpractice complaints. But, mistakes do happen. What happens if an uninsured doctor harms a patient? Unfortunately, there is a good chance that nothing will happen. Most attorneys will not take on a medical malpractice case if it is known that the doctor is uninsured because even if the patient is successful, it may be difficult if not impossible to collect. First, some physicians do not have the means to pay off a significant judgment. Second, there are ways to hide assets that could make collecting from even a successful doctor questionable. In other words, if you are doubly unfortunate; that is the victim of medical negligence by a physician who is uninsured, you effectively will not have any recourse against the physician.

In our practice we had several instances where a physician was uninsured. In one case the doctor had made some bad business investments and decided he could not pay for insurance. The doctor did make note of his lack of insurance, but that type of statement simply does not resonate with most patients. After all, when you go to a doctor’s office who thinks that there will be a medical error that causes serious injury? It is simply not on the radar.

The doctors who lack malpractice insurance share one common trait; they do not have hospital privileges. In other words they cannot admit you to the hospital, and if you are admitted, they cannot care for you in the hospital. Hospitals require that every doctor with privileges carry a certain amount of medical malpractice insurance, typically $1 million. Unfortunately, that is not foolproof. Another case we had involved a doctor whose insurance lapsed without the hospital noticing.
We believe that many doctors cannot be insured because they are practicing outside their areas of expertise, such as an Emergency Medicine doctor who decides to practice plastic surgery, which is much more lucrative. While that is perfectly legal, an insurance company may refuse to cover the doctor because of a lack of specialized training. And, this happens more often than we would like to think, especially among less sophisticated patient groups.

As patients we are free to inquire whether a physician has malpractice insurance. Aside from the fact that most of us would be reluctant to ask that question, doctors may resent it. After all, who wants to treat a patient who is thinking about malpractice even before been seen?

There is, however, a solution. The Georgia Composite Board of Medicine maintains a web site that provides information about every doctor who is licensed in the state. You can check out your doctors at http://medicalboard.georgia.gov/look-licensed-provider-1. A recent law requires the medical board to list whether a doctor is insured or not. The medical board, however, says that the Legislature hasn’t provided the funds to make the necessary changes to permit the publication of this data. Really! How much can that cost?