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Surgeon says system is 'badly broken'

March 16, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - As the tug of war among doctors and insurers, insurers and attorneys, and the victims - who pay the highest price for medical malpractice - played out in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Del. Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, sought a basic diagnosis.

"What role does malpractice play in the crisis?" he asked a witness panel that included Washington County physicians. "What role do bad doctors play here in Maryland in creating the problem?"

There are bad doctors, replied Hagers- town surgeon Karl Riggle, and "the system has not been very friendly in fixing that."

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Riggle is chief of surgery at Washington County Hospital, and in 16 years there, he said, he knew of six surgeons who, "after an extensive amount of heartache" on the part of hospital staff, are no longer performing surgery.

He cited one case in which he had been assigned to observe a surgeon who was up for discipline. "I had to watch 12 surgeries," he said. "I watched 11 of 12 surgeries in which there were complications; I watched two people die" before the system would act, he said, "because we had to protect her rights."

And after that, he said, he was named by that doctor in an anti-trust suit that cost the hospital more than $600,000 to settle.

"But she's not practicing surgery anymore," he said.

Riggle said he'd been sued on two other occasions "for trying to throw people off staff."

"That's why it's so hard to go after them," he said.

"The system is badly broken."

He said that with the Maryland Patients' Access to Quality Health Care Act of 2004, the General Assembly had taken steps to tighten up measures against doctors practicing bad medicine.

That law provides that factual findings by the Board of Physicians must be by a "preponderance of the evidence" rather than the previous requirement of "clear and convincing evidence" - which makes it easier to prove malpractice.

It also provides for funding for hospital safety initiatives and imposes a fine of up to $5,000 on hospitals or related institutions for failing to report a disciplinary action against a doctor.

There's more to it than bad doctors, though, Boonsboro resident Catherine Reuter-Lake told the committee.

Reuter-Lake said her mother had suffered a series of medical misadventures in several facilities before her death in December.

"It's not always about the doctors - it's about the hospital and staff," she said.

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