Was Your Doctor Ever Banned From Practice? You May Never Find Out

Here's a scary thought.  Thousands of doctors who have been banned by hospitals can still obtain medical licenses in other states.

According to Peter Eisler and Barbara Hansen, USA TODAY, "Despite years of criticism, the nation's state medical boards continue to allow thousands of physicians to keep practicing medicine after findings of serious misconduct that puts patients at risk, a USA TODAY investigation shows."

Yes, many of the doctors have been barred by hospitals or other medical facilities, but hundreds have paid millions of dollars to resolve malpractice claims, the two report. "Yet their medical licenses — and their ability to inflict harm — remain intact."

This isn't true in every state but the alarming fact remains, "State and federal records still paint a grim picture of a physician oversight system that often is slow to act, quick to excuse problems, and struggling to manage workloads in an era of tight state budgets."

• Eisler and Hansen point out that doctors disciplined or banned by hospitals often keep clean licenses. From 2001 to 2011, nearly 6,000 doctors had their clinical privileges restricted or taken away by hospitals and other medical institutions for misconduct involving patient care. But 52% — more than 3,000 doctors — never were fined or hit with a license restriction, suspension or revocation by a state medical board.

• Even the most severe misconduct goes unpunished, they add.  Nearly 250 of the doctors sanctioned by health care institutions were cited as an "immediate threat to health and safety," yet their licenses still were not restricted or taken away. About 900 were cited for substandard care, negligence, incompetence or malpractice — and kept practicing with no licensure action.

• This is hardest to believe, of all. "Doctors with the worst malpractice records keep treating patients: Among the nearly 100,000 doctors who made payments to resolve malpractice claims from 2001 to 2011, roughly 800 were responsible for 10% of all the dollars paid and their total payouts averaged about $5.2 million per doctor," they write. Yet fewer than one in five faced any sort of licensure action by their state medical boards.

It's not like nothing at all is done.  When a disciplinary report shows up, "boards have a range of options," Eisler and Hansen quote Lisa Robin, chief advocacy officer at the Federation of State Medical Boards. "It could be a letter requiring that you get training, or it could be monitoring of (a doctor's) practices or, where there is patient harm, it could be something as severe as a (license) suspension or revocation."

And here's the reason why, often, exactly nothing is done. "There's nothing tougher for state medical boards than competency and malpractice cases," Eisler and Hansen report.

"There are laws, there is due process and there is confidentiality, and all those things make it difficult for state medical boards to do what they do," they quote Jon Thomas, a surgeon and past president of the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice. ""You have to get all the facts and you have to follow the law. And it's complicated," adds Thomas, an officer with the Federation of State Medical Boards. If a board is pursuing disciplinary action, "a good lawyer representing that physician will know all the appropriate levers to push, and they push every one of them. That can take a lot of time."

Typically, "the cases require exhaustive investigation and legal preparation — a challenge for many boards wrestling with tight budgets and short staffs," Eisler and Hansen note.

"The states vary all over the lot in terms of the resources the boards have, whether they have good leadership, and whether they are regularly querying the (Data Bank, which allows doctors to query their own license records)," Sidney Wolfe, a physician and founder of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, tells the reporters. "Some states do a pretty good job; a lot of them don't."

And here's another problem: Hospitals' peer review committees — the internal panels of medical staff that oversee and review complaints against clinical personnel — often do a poor job.

We had a case here in Connecticut where a doctor with a drug problem continued to treat patients. Turns out the doctor's problem was well-known to the hospital, just never addressed.  The doctor was ultimately fired, and then died of an overdose several years later.

So how do you find out if yours is one of these doctors?  Some states, like Texas, offer licensure verification, where you can find out information about your doctor.  But if you don't live in a state with a process like that, you're pretty much on your own.  Talk to other patients, healthcare practitioners and keep your eyes and ears open.

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