Plugging the “Black Hole” in Medical Licensing Boards

Too often, patients and families with a serious complaint about an incompetent or unethical medical doctor will write their concerns to the state licensing board and then see their case drop into a black hole. But now, thanks to the work of one crusading family, the state of Washington has a new law to make its board more responsive.

Consumers shuld hope that more of these disciplinary bodies around the country sign on for the basic changes in board conduct now required by the state of Washington. For instance, the new law requires the board to give families a report of the final disposition of any complaint, with reasons for the board’s action.

These bodies are important upholders of patient safety because they have the legal power to pull or place restrictions on a doctor’s or nurse’s license to practice — yet they seldom do.

In malpractice actions brought by the Patrick Malone law firm, we have often experienced the black hole first hand when we have tried to bring dangerous practitioners to the attention of state licensing authorities.

In one case, we sent a thick pile of medical records to a state licensing board about a plastic surgeon who overdosed a patient with so much local anesthetic that her heart stopped, causing her to go into a vegetative state.

The board responded a year later with a notice that the surgeon had been given a “private reprimand.” When we asked them to explain what that meant, they said it was “private.”

Oh.

In another case, we sent records, expert reports and other data to a state board demonstrating how a nurse had mishandled Pitocin, causing a woman’s uterus to rupture with tragic consequences for her unborn baby. Two years later, we received a one-sentence notice that the board had decided not to do anything. The board advised us with pro forma language that we could send them more information. We pointed out in response that not knowing what else they might need, we felt stymied. The board said that was our problem.

Washington state has acted thanks to the efforts of Yanling Yu and Rex Johnson. Three years ago, Yu’s father, Xingxun Yu, 81, died after being given a drug his daughter says triggered a fatal allergic reaction. They filed a complaint with the state’s Medical Quality Assurance Commission about the doctor. When the board proved non-responsive, they enlisted the help of two state senators.

The new Washington law, which was signed by the governor a week ago, requires a disciplinary authority to promptly respond to inquiries about a complaint’s status and provide the person complaining with a report on its final disposition. The law also gives family members the right to tell boards how a medical injury has affected them or their loved ones.

Yu told the Seattle Times: “I think it will make a difference, at least make them more responsive. I think it is a great step forward from what I call the dark ages in the process.”

Lisa McGiffert, campaign manager for Consumer Union’s Safe Patient Project, said she hoped the new Washington law would become a national model.

Article first published as Plugging the “Black Hole” in Medical Licensing Boards on Technorati.

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