In a recent investigative article by two reporters at USA Today, it was revealed that thousands of doctors across the country are allowed to practice medicine despite having been reprimanded for negligent or even illegal conduct. The report focused on the failure by state medical boards to take action to discipline members who have been found to cause harm to patients.
While the reporters admitted that the problem is not a universal one, some states are certainly better at punishing negligent physicians than others, the fact is that thousands of doctors from all across the country have been allowed to hold onto their medical licenses despite some shocking behavior.
In one case out of Texas, a general practitioner’s malpractice was linked to the death of two patients; both were given medications with dangerous interactions, yet years went by before the Texas Medical Board took any action. This decision came not only after two preventable deaths, but also after other reports of medical mismanagement and admitted prescription drug abuse on the doctor’s part. Family members of the deceased patients say they were horrified to learn that a doctor was allowed to keep practicing despite such a long track record of jeopardizing the safety of patients.
The case in Texas is a tragic one and, unfortunately, not an isolated incident. Reports collected by the newspaper show that in the past 10 years more than 6,000 doctors have had their privileges either restricted or revoked by hospitals for misconduct directly related to patient care. Of this group, a slim majority, 52 percent, were never fined or in any way punished by state medical boards. That means that more than 3,000 doctors who were cited for jeopardizing patient safety are still walking around without a blemish on their records.
Advocates for patient safety, including those at the Citizen Advocacy Center, say that just because a doctor has lost privileges at a hospital or other medical facility does not necessarily mean that the state should revoke his or her license. However, there are plenty of instances where such a harsh punishment is deserved. The problem is that the state medical boards are either taking no action at all or are taking so long to hand down punishments that other patients are being harmed in the interim.
Complaints about the failures of state medical boards have been around for decades, with an especially scathing report being issued by the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services back in 1986. That report noted that such boards typically impose “strikingly few disciplinary actions” and generally act with little or no oversight.
Despite the fuss, little has been done to shake up the existing system. Those doctors that have put patients in harms way should be investigated thoroughly before being allowed to go near any other unsuspecting individuals. Given the lack of information available to ordinary people, it is up to the medical boards and other regulatory bodies to ensure that dangerous doctors are disciplined or stripped of their power to cause harm.