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WHY ISN'T OUR STATE PROTECTING US FROM DANGEROUS DOCTORS?

One hates to think of a needlessly lost human life and two mistakenly aborted fetuses as arguments for anything. First and foremost, they're horrible tragedies.

But the tragedies are the best evidence that what lawmakers and lobbyists do in shiny, sterile hallways in Albany has a price in flesh and blood.

There's something wrong in this state, something that might be absurdly amusing if it weren't -- literally -- heart-stoppingly serious.

It's easier to find out about a machine that washes your clothes than about a doctor who cuts you open.

Consumer Reports can tell you all about the quality of various appliances.

But you would have a better chance deciphering hieroglyphics than finding out how good -- or bad -- any of the state's 45,000 practicing doctors are.

Maybe it's something Sarah Smith was curious about. The Depew woman price-shopped when she was looking for breast-enhancement surgery. Too bad it isn't as easy to quality-shop. Ms. Smith died after the surgery in Dr. Anthony Pignataro's office a month ago. His license has been suspended.

What most people don't know is that somebody with a medical degree can set up shop as anything from a cancer surgeon to a gynecologist without advanced training. In cosmetic surgery, the physician gamut runs from trained specialists to hucksters with sheepskins from Third World medical schools whom no hospital wants any part of.

Massachusetts has an 800 number you can call to check physician credentials. If New York had one, maybe Sarah Smith would have learned that Pignataro reportedly has eight cases under investigation by the state Health Department.

Maybe physician quality was something the women on Dr. Rafael Cunanan's operating table were curious about. Because of a slip of the scalpel in 1984, one of his patients ended up sterilized. Two others, in 1990 and 1991, had fetuses aborted, because the doctor, before performing uterine surgery, admittedly didn't know that they were pregnant.

We don't know those women's names. They're identified in documents as Patients A, B and C.

This week, Cunanan -- in what amounted to a plea deal -- admitted to negligence and was slapped with a fine and four years probation. "Slapped" is the operative word. He didn't even lose his license, although there has to be another physician with him whenever he puts on the mask.

Granted, obstetrics is a tough, malpractice-laden field. But probation hardly seems just punishment for a pair of unwanted abortions and a sterilization. Yet that's the way it goes in this state.

"Eighty percent of people on the (state health) board that hears these cases are doctors," said Blair Horner of the non-profit New York Public Interest Research Group. "They're part of the medical culture. You need tougher cops on the beat, and that means more non-doctors on that board."

A larger issue than whether the punishment fits the "negligence" is how hard it is to find out anything about doctors.

In Massachusetts, anybody can call an 800 number and learn about a doctor's malpractice cases, disciplinary problems, criminal convictions, education, awards and honors. It's far more than we get from the Health Department's 800-663-6114.

Easy access isn't just morally right; this is information we deserve. Tax dollars stoke about half of the health-care system's costs, through Medicaid and Medicare.

The Health Department won't even reveal how long it has been investigating Cunanan. How many patients has he cut into since the complaints were made? Didn't patients have the right to know that there was a cloud over his head?

How many patients will he cut into from this day on? People who didn't see the media stories or will forget them after a few months?

An 800 number would give us protection from shaky-handed surgeons and inept anesthesiologists.

Yet a bill to duplicate Massachusetts' system went nowhere last year. Unlike Massachusetts, this state's huge medical lobby didn't get behind it.

In New York, it's easier to find out about the quality of a car, vacuum cleaner or toaster than the physicians who hold our lives in their hands.

It's not just wrong; it's deadly.

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