A report released this week by the consumer watchdog organization Public Citizen raises serious questions about the conduct of state medical boards, according to an analysis published by the Los Angeles Times. The charges, in turn, raise broader questions about the conduct of hospitals and doctors and the prevalence in our health care system of doctors who are problematic at best. Here in Oregon it must make conscientious citizens wonder whether instances of medical malpractice or even wrongful deaths have been allowed to occur as a result of insufficient professional oversight.
As outlined by Public Citizen on the group’s website (see link below) the study examined 20 years of data (1990-2009) regarding doctors who have had “one or more clinical privilege actions,” meaning that they have had some or all of their hospital or emergency privileges withdrawn because of misconduct, incompetence or some other professional infraction. It then compared these numbers with the numbers of physicians sanctioned over the same period by state medical boards. The analysis yields a shocking result: nationwide, 55% of doctors disciplined by their hospitals suffered no further punishment from their state licensing board.
When thinking about the possible implications of this information for Oregon medical malpractice we can take some comfort from the fact that our state had one of the better records on this score. In Oregon, 41.48% of doctors who had some or all of their hospital privileges revoked over the study period suffered no state-imposed sanction. That number is obviously far too high, though it is better than what one finds in most other states (for comparative purposes: Colorado had the lowest rate of unsanctioned doctors at 31.63%; Hawaii was worst with a truly shocking 77.08%).
Some will argue that the gap between hospital-punished and state-punished doctors is proof that individual hospitals hold their doctors to higher standards than the minimum prescribed by state medical boards, and, in fairness, it is reasonable to assume that at least some of the discrepancy can be accounted for in this manner. It is, however, equally reasonable to assume that a good proportion of the difference can be attributed to state medical boards being slow to act or, perhaps, applying standards that are too lax. That, in turn, raises the question: who is protecting patients from doctors who, after being disciplined at one hospital, simply move on to another?
The ideal, of course, is for all physicians to be properly supervised and, when necessary, disciplined. It is difficult for individual patients to assess a doctor’s credentials – that is why we have state medical boards in the first place. When patient are injured because regulatory bodies failed to act properly, it is time for our courts to get involved and to act as a final line of defense – and accountability – between doctors and the public. A Portland medical malpractice and wrongful death attorney can offer invaluable advice and assistance to families who believe a doctor who should not have been practicing has damaged their lives.
Los Angeles Times: Report: States fail to discipline rogue doctors
Washington Post: Report: State boards don’t punish all doctors sanctioned by hospitals
Public Citizen’s News Release on the Study (this page includes a link to the full report)