Maybe you recently heard that your doctor was sued for medical malpractice. Or maybe you were searching his or her name online and came across that information. Should you be concerned?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no, say patient-safety and medical malpractice experts we consulted. Here’s how to know when to worry, where to go for the information, and what you should do if you think you’ve been harmed by a physician.

What’s the Connection Between Malpractice Settlements and Bad Doctoring?

Medical malpractice lawsuits are an inexact indication of substandard care, for several reasons. For one, cases often settle before trial without an admission of guilt, says Michelle Mello, J.D., Ph.D., professor of law and of health research and policy at Stanford University, who recently wrote about lawsuits and physicians in the New England Journal of Medicine. In other cases, a lawsuit might have focused on the physician when it was really the fault of his or her hospital. Or, Mello says, “it could be that it was simply less expensive for the insurer to settle the case than to fight it.”

In addition, doctors who practice on sicker patients may tend to have worse outcomes, and thus be prone to more lawsuits, says Orly Avitzur, M.D., Consumer Reports' medical adviser.

Moreover, even good doctors can have judgments go against them on occasion. “One malpractice claim means essentially nothing,” says Matthew Wynia, M.D., the director of the center for bioethics and humanities at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, in Aurora. “Even if it's pretty egregious, the idea that we should never ever make a mistake, that's just unrealistic,” Wynia says.

So When Should You Worry?

You should be concerned if your doctor has a pattern of medical malpractice payouts. “Three malpractice cases, five malpractice cases, eight malpractice cases, at some point, you start to wonder,” Wynia says.

Relatively few physicians have had multiple malpractices payouts, according to an analysis of the National Practitioner Data Bank conducted for Consumer Reports by Robert E. Oshel. Before he retired in 2008, Oshel was the associate director for research and disputes at the federal repository, which collects information on medical malpractice and disciplinary actions on physicians and other licensed healthcare practitioners. He found that about 15 percent of the nearly 1.25 million physicians practicing since 1990 have had at least one medical malpractice payout, but less than 2 percent have had two or more payouts.

How Can You Find If Your Doctor Has a Pattern of Malpractice Payouts?

Unfortunately, not from the National Practitioner Data Bank. Information about specific physicians and their malpractice history in that database is only available to hospitals, physicians, insurance companies, law enforcement, and a few other select groups. Patients can’t access that data.

Instead, you need to go to your state medical board. That’s the quasi-governmental agency responsible for licensing and disciplining physicians, and that often has information about lawsuits, too.

But finding information about lawsuits, or physician disciplinary actions, on those websites isn’t easy. A recent Consumer Reports analysis of state medical board websites found that many were difficult to navigate. And the information they contain can be incomplete.

For example, in California certain kinds of medical malpractice judgments or arbitration agreements are supposed to be reported to the state board only if they are for more than $30,000. And doctors and their lawyers sometimes try to settle so they stay below those cut offs. Oshel says that during his time at the NPDB, almost 10 percent of all the payments in California were for exactly $29,999.  

Patients need to be smart when it comes to their doctor and medical malpractice

Do Doctors With Malpractice Payouts Always Get Disciplined By State Medical Boards?

No, not even all of the doctors with the largest payouts against them, according to Oshel’s analysis. He found that fewer than 2 percent of doctors are responsible for half of all medical malpractice dollars paid. Yet only about 13 percent of those doctors have ever been disciplined by a state board. That worries Oshel, and suggests to him that state boards may not be as vigilant in protecting patients as they should be. “When you have a very large payout or have two, three, four or more payouts, it’s highly suspicious,” he says. And if a large percentage of those doctors aren’t being sanctioned, “it certainly raises questions as to whether the licensing system is doing what they should be doing to protect the public.”

What Should You Do If You Think You’ve Been Harmed By a Doctor?

Wynia encourages open and honest communication between patients and physicians so that patients can better understand why an error occurred and what is being done to fix it and prevent it from happening again. If you don’t feel your doctor is being honest with you, and you have been harmed, gather your medical records and get a second opinion. If you still have questions or concerns after speaking with a physician, consider consulting with a malpractice attorney and filing a complaint with your state medical board. Read more about when and how to file a complaint against your doctor.