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I-Team: Medical Malpractice Overlooked In Massachusetts?

BOSTON (CBS) - They are every patient's biggest fears: a botched surgery; a missed diagnosis.

That's why the state has a board to investigate and discipline doctors.

But an I-Team investigation has found that of the hundreds of doctors who settle malpractice claims, almost none are held accountable by the state board tasked with protecting the public from substandard medical treatment.

WBZ-TV's Kathy Curran reports

Whether it's a medical emergency or just a routine trip to the doctor, you expect quality care. But that's not always the case.

"Please don't let my son die. That's what was going through my head, please don't let my son die."

That was the silent plea from a father while his baby boy was in distress, stuck in the birth canal during delivery at Mt. Auburn Hospital.

Dr. Charles Kawada was the doctor in the delivery room.

"What should have happened was I should've gotten a C-section as soon as possible," the mother said. "It's unbelievable, probably a parent's worst nightmare."

Dr. Kawada did not order a C-section. He waited and eventually used a vacuum to extract the baby, but there was a major problem. By the time the baby was born he wasn't breathing.

"He lost oxygen and his organs began to fail," the mother said. The baby survived but suffered permanent brain damage.

In the last 10 years, Dr. Kawada has settled three malpractice claims -- including that couples' -- but he's never been disciplined by the state Board of Registration in Medicine, which polices all doctors in Massachusetts.

Dr. Kawada is hardly alone.

The I-Team poured through records for more than 16,000 doctors and found 654 of them have settled one or more malpractice claims in the last decade. Out of those, only six doctors -- less than 1 percent -- have been disciplined by the state board.

"To the consumer that seems almost unfathomable that could happen," said Linda DeBenedictis, founder and president of the New England Patients Rights Group.

The board's inaction when it comes to disciplining doctors with multiple malpractice claims "allows physicians who perhaps shouldn't be practicing to continue to harm other innocent, unsuspecting people," DeBenedictis said.

Our investigation found 14 doctors who've settled three or more malpractice claims in the last 10 years and none them had been disciplined.

Fall River radiologist Daniel Le settled three cases. In one he allegedly failed to diagnose a woman's breast cancer. In another a woman suffered permanent paralysis after Doctor Le allegedly failed to notice her spine was fractured, court records show.

Doctor Stephen Kasparian, an obstetrician in Fall River, settled four cases. One involved the death of a twin baby, the records show.

"Unfortunately medicine is not a precise science. We wish it would be," said Stancel Riley, executive director of the Board of Registration in Medicine.

In disciplining doctors, Riley said the board relies primarily on complaints from patients, hospitals and law enforcement -- not malpractice claims.

"A malpractice suit is not proof of substandard care, it's an allegation," Riley said. "And since most of those are settled -- 96 percent of them are settled -- that doesn't give any determination if there was wrongdoing or not."

But that's no comfort to the mother of the baby born at Mt. Auburn Hospital.

"The public is putting their trust into the board as far as making the right decisions... to protect patients and protect the public, and they failed," she said.

The board of medicine has disciplined an average of 51 doctors per year since 2006.

On its web site, the board profiles 33 thousand doctors licensed in Massachusetts and includes the number of payments each doctor has made on malpractice claims.

Dr. Kawada says two of the three malpractice claims against him were settled for small amounts of money.

All the malpractice cases cited in this report were settled with no admission of wrongdoing by the doctors.

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