After Spotlight investigation into heart surgeon, N.H. lawmakers eye changes to medical board transparency
State lawmakers are considering changes to how New Hampshire's medical board holds physicians accountable, and what kinds of information about doctors' records it shares with the public, in the wake of a Boston Globe investigation into a former heart surgeon at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester.
The Globe’s investigation focused on Dr. Yvon Baribeau, who accumulated 21 malpractice settlements, including 14 related to patient deaths, stemming from his 25-year tenure with Catholic Medical Center. As the Globe reported, that represents one of the worst malpractice records in the United States, but “his physician profile on the New Hampshire Board of Medicine’s website would continue to look pristine — as if he had never done anything wrong.”
The investigation described the New Hampshire Board of Medicine as among the country’s least transparent, noting that its online physician directory does not publish information about malpractice claims. By contrast, Baribeau’s profile on the Massachusetts medical board website lists 20 malpractice settlements.
A subcommittee of the Legislature’s health and human services oversight committee held its first hearing Monday on whether the board should do more to inform the public about doctors with questionable track records.
Rep. Mark Pearson, a Republican from Hampstead who chairs the oversight committee, said the goal is to find a reporting system that won’t unfairly malign doctors while also “protect[ing] the public by making sure that those whose level of performance is horrid, where colleagues complain, those people are known for what they did wrong.”
Sean McGorry told lawmakers that the public deserves more transparency. He said his sister, Joan Dimick, died after an operation by Baribeau. The family didn’t discover until much later that the hospital had previously suspended him for nearly a month. (Dimick’s story was also highlighted in a recent article by the Globe.)
“If she had that information, she would not have gone forward with the surgery,” McGorry said Monday. “She was nervous about the surgery to begin with.”
Current and former Board of Medicine members said it is notified of all malpractice claims. But state law bars the board from releasing information about the complaints it receives and investigates, unless it decides to take disciplinary action.
Dr. David Conway, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist and former board president who now serves as a physician investigator, said complaints don’t necessarily mean a doctor did anything wrong. Publishing that information would be unfair to doctors, he said — even if it’s made clear when a complaint was dismissed as unfounded.
“Sometimes there is no avoiding a bad result,” he said.
Conway added that reading the Globe stories caused him “considerable upset” and said providers play a key role in raising the alarm about colleagues’ problematic behavior.
“If we don't hear it as a board, we don't know anything about it, we can't act on it,” he said. “It comes down to other providers who will make a complaint.”
But Holly Haines, a Manchester-based attorney who represents plaintiffs harmed by medical errors, noted that, in the case of Baribeau, the board did receive warning. According to a letter obtained by the Globe, an attorney representing a Catholic Medical Center whistleblower asked the medical board to impose an “emergency suspension” against Baribeau in 2018, saying his “continued access to patients poses a risk to public safety.”
Haines suggested removing some of the leeway the board has in terms of what it chooses to formally investigate, by changing “may” to “shall” in state law.
“I suspect and respectfully submit that more discipline would be imposed, and would be public,” she said.
Dr. Emily Baker, a longtime obstetrician and president of the medical board, said the board reviews every complaint, including those raised in lawsuits, and opens formal investigations when it feels it’s merited. But she said mandating a certain level of investigation for every allegation would be unnecessary, and not feasible given the board’s limited resources.
“It makes me feel a little nervous having the tort process be what drives evaluations of physicians,” she said.
Additional hearings are expected later this month.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized when Baribeau's malpractice settlements occurred relative to his time with Catholic Medical Center. The story has been updated to clarify that most of the settlements occurred after his time working at the hospital. Catholic Medical Center is an underwriter of NHPR. NHPR covers them just like any other institution.