Watch CBSN Live

Preventative Medicine?

-- Sixty-nine-year-old Viola St. Pierre never thought about checking her doctor out. Today she wishes she had, for now even a simple drive to her daughter's house near her home in Bangor, Maine, presents a challenge.

"I do not see out of that left eye," she says. "Someone may dash out in front of me, and I wouldn't even know." Correspondent Troy Roberts reports on what ordinary patients might want to know about their doctors and how various states limit what they can find out. St. Pierre's problems began four years ago.

"I had a cataract," St. Pierre explains. "And I thought if I had that cataract removed, that it was going to make things much brighter for me."

She went to see Dr. Donald Werner, an eye surgeon who had operated successfully on a family friend.

Her first impression of the doctor was that he was very charming, St. Pierre says.

Werner told her he'd be able to remove the cataract with a common 45-minute procedure. She decided to go ahead.

"They took her in, and an hour passed," her daughter recalls. "Two hours passed....Three hours passed."

Her daughters say it took five hours for St. Pierre to return from surgery, and there were problems.

After the surgery, St. Pierre felt "like I had three or four layers of wax paper over my eye," she says.

Dr. Werner performed two more operations but St. Pierre's eyesight only worsened. Before she could get an explanation, she received some news. "I did have an upcoming appointment," St. Pierre says. "And then I received this clipping from the Augusta newspaper."

Her doctor was gone, having abandoned his practice without notice. Recalls St. Pierre: "I didn't know where to turn next."

St. Pierre was later shocked to find out that Dr. Werner had 17 patient complaints filed against him in the previous six years. His record in Maine was so bad the state had declined to renew his medical license - at about the same time he was treating St. Pierre.

"When you go to a doctor, feel he's going to do what's best for you," St. Pierre says. And he betrayed her trust, she says.

But in Maine, as in many states, there was no way for St. Pierre to know about Werner's history. The medical board does not have jurisdiction over simple negligence.

Randal Manning of Maine's medical board says his state can only do so much when it comes to keeping patients like St. Pierre informed about their doctors. "I would tell you who he is,...where he was trained, what his current licensure status is and will tell you if he's had any disciplines," Manning says.

However, citizens cannot find out if a doctor has been convicted of a crime or sued for malpractice.

That could change. For about 10 years now, the federal government has been tracking doctors' conduct and trying to prevent those who lose a license in one state from practicing in another. Until now that information has been restricted. But Congress is considering a bill to make it public.

People cn research much more detailed information about cars than they can about doctors, says consumer advocate Dr. Sidney Wolfe, who argues that the proposed legislation could save lives.

Most patients are hindered if they try to carefully research their doctor's history, he says.

Wolfe maintains that if a doctor settles a malpractice suit for money or is disciplined by a hospital, his or her professional past should be an open book. "We are saying we think these are pieces of information you have a right to know," he says.

The fact that a doctor has been sued, even several times, doesn't necessarily mean he or she is a "bad doctor," says Dr. Thomas Reardon, who heads the American Medical Association.

Reardon argued before a congressional committee that all malpractice suits should remain sealed from the public. "If you make information available to the public which says this doctor is being investigated because of an accusation and the accusation is false,'re damning tat doctor."

Could lack of access to this information potentially harm patients? "I don't believe this is a shroud of secrecy....We want good, reliable, accurate information," Reardon says.

Dr. Wolfe argues that the AMA is a trade association; it believes that it has a responsibility to protect doctors from patients finding out information about them.

In the case of Maine's St. Pierre, could she have anticipated the results? "Not unless I would have investigated him," she says. "But I didn't think of such a thing."

St. Pierre did not learn where Dr. Werner had gone. So 48 hours went looking for him. CBS News found him at the New York Eye Surgery Center in the Bronx. After leaving Maine, he had moved to New York and set up shop again.

48 Hours' Troy Roberts eventually confronted Werner: "I wanted to talk a bit about the practice that you left behind in Maine...and the complaints that were lodged against you there."

"I don't want to talk about that," Werner said.

"Viola St. Pierre...she says because of your incompetence, her eyesight is irreparably damaged," Roberts said.

"I don't want to talk about that," Werner replied.

The New York Eye Surgery Center declined CBS News' request for an interview. The day CBS News called, the center said it had placed Dr. Werner on leave pending a review.

All of this is little comfort for Viola St. Pierre. Following Dr. Werner's three operations, her eyesight got so bad she needed a corneal transplant.

Even after the transplant, her vision remains a problem, with no solution on the horizon. "I guess I'll have to live with it," she says. "When it starts getting dusk, I panic," St. Pierre says as she drives.

The fate of her former doctor? The New York Eye Surgery Center finished its review of Dr. Werner and terminated his employment.

©MMII CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue