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The Personal Face of Inadequate Doctor Discipline

June 2012

Sidney M. Wolfe, M.D.

Our annual report in this issue of Health Letter (comparing state medical boards’ records of disciplining doctors — in too many cases, poor records) admittedly lacks the personal details that translate poor board performance into its adverse impact on patients in a given state.

By looking at just one state, Minnesota (which has been ranked in the bottom five of all 50 states and the District of Columbia for the past nine years), we can get a better idea of the preventable damage suffered by patients because of the state’s poor disciplinary record.

A recent investigation by the Minneapolis Star Tribune highlighted some of this actual or potential damage:

  • Since 2000, at least 46 Minnesota doctors escaped board discipline after authorities in other states took action against their licenses for such missteps as committing crimes, patient care errors or having sexual or inappropriate relationships with patients.
  • The Minnesota board also chose not to act against a state-licensed radiologist who mistakenly inserted a chest tube into the wrong lung of a patient during a procedure in Florida. In that case, 20 states, including Florida, followed with some type of action.
  • Another Minnesota physician was reprimanded and ordered to receive psychological counseling after the board found he abused his position of authority and engaged in a sexual relationship with a vulnerable patient who had received electroshock therapy for depression. He had handled the woman’s care at Fairview University Medical Center. He later allowed the woman to move into his home, where he began a romantic relationship with her less than a year after she left the hospital, according to the board order.

In Minnesota and other states with poor disciplinary records, each doctor who should be seriously disciplined but is not often has a practice of several hundred or more patients. The multiplying effect of inadequate discipline is dangerously clear. Citizens should press their state legislators to exercise much more oversight of state medical boards than is now the case.

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