An investigation report appearing in USA TODAY on August 20, 2013 found that thousands of doctors throughout the United States who lost their clinical privileges at hospitals and other medical facilities due to their misconduct were not punished by the state medical boards that were responsible for the doctors’ medical licensure. USA TODAY reported that between 2001 and 2011, almost 6,000 doctors had their clinical privileges taken away or restricted for misconduct involving patient care but more than 3,000 of those doctors never received a restriction, suspension, or revocation of their medical license or were fined for their misconduct. There are approximately 878,000 licensed doctors in the United States.
The research found that almost 250 of the doctors who were sanctioned after a finding that they posed an “immediate threat to health and safety” of their patients (the most serious category of misconduct) still had their medical licenses without any restrictions. Approximately 900 doctors who were cited for substandard care, negligence, incompetence, or medical malpractice did not incur any negative medical license action.
Perhaps the most egregious finding was that about 800 of the almost 100,000 doctors who had made payments to resolve medical malpractice claims between 2001 and 2011 were responsible for 10% of all malpractice payments made, with total payouts averaging approximately $5.2 million per doctor. And how did these doctors fare with their state medical licensing boards? Less than one-in-five had any negative action taken against their medical license.
The USA TODAY article provided some examples of doctors still practicing even though they have been cited for serious misconduct:
A California doctor who had made eight malpractice payouts between 1991 and 2008 that totaled approximately $2.1 million had also had his hospital privileges restricted twice during 2007 and surrendered in 2008. Yet this California doctor did not have any negative action taken against his medical license.
A Florida doctor with a history of six medical malpractice payouts between 1993 and 2009 that totaled approximately $1.1 million had an emergency suspension of his hospital privileges in 2004 for misconduct that was described as an “immediate threat to health or safety” of his patients. The next year, a managed care organization took similar action against the doctor. Yet he practices with a clean medical license.
And in Louisiana, a doctor with a history of nine medical malpractice payouts between 1992 and 2007 (at least five of which involved the death of patients) and the denial of clinical privileges by a managed care organization in 2008 still practices without any restriction on his medical license.
Here is an amazing statistic: by the beginning of 2011, 47% of hospitals in the United States had never reported restrictions or revocations of doctors’ clinical privileges to the National Practitioner Data Bank (“NPBD”), which is a federal repository for state medical boards and others to track the licensure records of doctors, medical malpractice payments, and disciplinary actions taken by hospitals, HMOs, and similar institutions against doctors. Some of the hospitals get around the NPDB reporting requirements by allowing doctors to resign before investigations are begun or by restricting doctors’ clinical privileges for just under the 30-day threshold for reporting such restrictions to the NPDB. The NPDB has been in existence for more than twenty years.
So what is one lesson to be learned from the USA TODAY research into state medical boards regarding their disciplinary actions against doctors who have been found to have engaged in misconduct? You should not solely rely on whether a doctor has no public record of disciplinary action against him/her when choosing the right doctor to provide medical care to you or your family – some would say that state medical boards exist to protect doctors to the detriment of patients and are thereby failing the patients.
If you, a family member, a loved one, or a friend may be the victim of medical negligence in the United States, you should promptly seek legal advice from a local medical malpractice attorney in your state who may investigate whether you have a valid medical malpractice claim and represent you in a malpractice case, if appropriate.
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