Health Care

Making Sure No Bad Doctor Goes Unpunished

| by Public Citizen

By Joe Newman

I had a conversation with a reporter this afternoon who remarked that the news release we put out today about doctor discipline
sounded a lot the one we put out last year, or the year before, or the
year before that. Part of that is true: states, overall, are still
doing a lousy job disciplining bad doctors. In fact, two of the largest
states, California and Florida, are doing so bad
that they’ve slipped into the bottom 10 states when it comes to keeping
the public safe from incompetent, unscrupulous or unqualified
physicians.

But as a D.C. resident, there is one positive change in there that
should be noted: the nation’s capital is doing a much better job of
holding doctors accountable than it once did. In the rankings Public
Citizen released for 2003, D.C. ranked 42 out of 51. The 2008 rankings
have D.C. ranked 23, an impressive move up and one that can be
attributed directly to the public pressure brought by public interest
advocates, such as Public Citizen, and the news media, such as the
Washington Post.

The Post’s Cheryl W. Thompson did a three-part series back in April
of 2005 that uncovered just how pitiful the District was when it came
to disciplining bad doctors. Here’s what Thompson found in her
investigation:

* Twenty-six physicians with substance-abuse problems
known to the board have not been disciplined, despite the fact that six
lost their licenses in other states. In one instance, the board gave a
license to a doctor knowing that he had “several alcohol-related
arrests.”

* Fourteen physicians with D.C. licenses went unpunished by the
board although they were disciplined in Maryland and Virginia for
criminal convictions, sexual misconduct or questionable medical care.
Five have medical practices in the District, and seven have staff
privileges at city hospitals.

* The board received roughly 318 complaints against physicians
between 1999 and 2004 for allegations ranging from negligent medical
care to sexual assault, but only four of the physicians were
disciplined.

* The medical board voted to discipline more than a dozen doctors
for various infractions but did not follow through on its decision.

Thompson’s series, which quoted Public Citizen’s Dr. Sidney Wolfe,
sparked outrage but, more importantly, it sparked change. Dr. Wolfe
testified about D.C.’s shortcomings and lack of full-time staff in
November 2005 before the D.C. Council. (His .pdf testimony is here).

Since the Post story and the hearing, the D.C. medical board has
beefed up its staff and done a much better job of taking action against
bad doctors.

So, yeah, the news from Public Citizen about doctor discipline
sounds a little familiar. But just take a look at that list and you can
see that there are plenty of states on there that need to do what D.C.
did when confronted with the facts.