According to a recent report, the California Medical Board has failed to take any disciplinary action on 710 troubled doctors, despite the fact these doctors have been disciplined by hospitals, surgical centers, and other healthcare organizations in the state. As a Chicago medical malpractice lawyer, this story is not surprising. Disciplinary actions against doctors are seldom taken absent truly outrageous misconduct. As a result, many problematic doctors are allowed to continue practicing their profession, which may include leaving one state for another.
The report involving California was issued by Public Citizen, a non-for-profit group out of Washington, D.C.. The report was based on data compiled by the National Practitioner Data Bank from records generated from 1990 to 2009. Initiated by Congress, this Data Bank tracks all disciplinary actions taken against US doctors, as well as medical malpractice payments and other actions.
The purpose of the Data Bank is to improve patient safety and quality patient care by encouraging state licensing boards, hospitals, and other professional societies to identify and discipline doctors who engaged in unprofessional behavior. The Data Bank was formed with the additional purpose of preventing incompetent physician and/or unprofessional physicians from moving from state to state without the discovery of prior adverse actions taken against them. Therefore, the failure to discipline a doctor in California can have a direct impact on the safety of patients in other states like Illinois. After all, a doctor who avoids discipline in California for an otherwise actionable offense could simply move to Illinois and obtain staff privileges at an Illinois hospital without the hospital knowing the doctor's prior offenses.
According to Public Citizen's director, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, medical boards are not the only entities that fail to discipline doctors. "Hospitals rarely discipline doctors. When they do, it's usually for very serious infractions." Thus, if there is no reporting by the hospital or Medical Board, the doctor's misconduct goes unreported in the National Data Bank. There are a variety of reasons why hospitals, themselves, fail to report doctors. In many instances, there is great reluctance to report another doctor at a hospital because the reporting doctor will have to see the reported doctor in the same hospital. If a doctor reports a supervisory doctor, the reporting doctor may fear their career could be harmed by the supervisory doctor who has more power at the hospital. In addition, it is not unusual for hospital management to refrain from taking disciplinary action against a doctor in exchange for the doctor leaving that hospital "voluntarily" (without further legal squabble).
The report from Public Citizens focused on doctors who had actually faced disciplinary action by private health organizations, but where no action was taken by the California Medical Board. Without reference to individual names, the report identified one California surgeon who was disciplined three times in 2007 and 2008, while racking up eight medical malpractice payments from 1991 to 2008. Yet, the California Medical Board failed to take any action against that doctor. Another California doctor had his staff privileges taken away from a hospital after being disciplined six times from 2005 to 2009. The Board has still taken no action against that doctor. California Medical Board spokeswoman, Jennifer Simoes, commented that officials have reviewed these reports but stated more analysis is needed. Specifically, she said "[w]e believe more data needs to be obtained, but like many agencies, we have a 20% vacancy rate and we're trying to focus on our core functions." Ms. Simoes told Public Citizens the Medical Board would look into these matters further "when we [have] the resources."
What is perhaps most troubling is that we do not know how many troubled doctors in California and other states go undisciplined by either hospitals or their state's medical boards. Much like the code of silence among some police officers, there is a code of silence among many doctors. As a result, there are unprofessional and/or incompetent doctors practicing in every state simply because one or more of their peers looked the other way or the doctor was asked to leave voluntarily and moved to another state. Consequently, the failure to discipline a doctor in one state can, in fact, have a direct effect on the citizens of another state.
Los Angeles Times, California Medical Board Fails To Discipline 710 Troubled Doctors, August 10, 2011