State medical boards are important agencies that can take away a license from a doctor who is dangerous to patients because of drug addiction, ethical lapses or incompetence. Routinely, however, the boards turn out to be focused more on protecting wayward doctors than protecting the public from malpracticing doctors.
Here is how a new article in the Dallas Morning News opens:
Seven years ago, after a scathing series of stories in The Dallas Morning News, the Texas Medical Board promised to crack down on bad doctors. Patient endangerment would be dealt with severely. And sexual misconduct, one official said, would become “intolerable.”
It hasn’t turned out that way.
After its last meeting, in late August, the board announced decisions on four sex-related cases. Two involved doctors whom judges had already sentenced for crimes against children. Two involved psychiatrists found to have had affairs with adult patients – potentially sexual assault under Texas law, but they’ve not been charged.
The child abusers were allowed to go on practicing medicine, though not with kids. The other two are working without restrictions.
It’s all part of a broader pattern of tolerance for misconduct, a News analysis shows. Others who kept their licenses after the August meeting include two doctors convicted of lucrative federal crimes that put patients in harm’s way; a neurosurgeon who operated on the wrong body part four times; a cardiologist found to have performed dozens of invasive procedures with little or no cause; and at least seven physicians linked to a death.
In all, 131 doctors were disciplined at the meeting. Only two had their licenses revoked, and then only because they quit contesting the cases against them. A handful of others were suspended or surrendered their licenses rather than fight.
Readers are urged to look at the entire story.
This is depressingly familiar to patient safety advocates. Thirty years ago, I participated with a team of investigative reporters at the Miami Herald where we uncovered similar attitudes. (See discussion on my bio page.)
One key part of the pattern is that medical boards are dominated by physician members. There is no reason why this needs to be. Any intelligent public-minded citizen can understand issues like sex abuse of patients, drug addiction, wrong-site surgery and the other serious transgressions that the boards deal with.
Yet another problem is that even when boards act, their actions are so shrouded in secrecy that patients often never find out that their doctor has any issues. That is why in my book, The Life You Save: Nine Steps to Finding the Best Medical Care — and Avoiding the Worst, I counsel patients looking for a doctor not to rely heavily on a “clean slate” when they search for medical disciplinary actions. That can often be meaningless. Even an empty listing on medical malpractice lawsuits can be meaningless, when those are settled quietly and the records sealed.