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July 29, 2003

Public Citizen Releases Database With Names of 293 "Questionable Doctors" in West Virginia – Most Still Practicing

Consumers Can Search Online for Their Doctor

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen today released new information about 293 physicians who have been disciplined by West Virginia’s state medical board for incompetence, misprescribing drugs, sexual misconduct, criminal convictions, ethical lapses and other offenses. Most of the doctors were not required to stop practicing, even temporarily.

Public Citizen has been publishing national and regional editions of its Questionable Doctors database in book form for more than a decade. But now, for the first time, the data about West Virginia are available on the World Wide Web (the books are no longer available). The Questionable Doctors Online Web site is www.questionabledoctors.org. With today’s addition of West Virginia and Tennessee data, the site will have information about doctors in 38 states and the District of Columbia.

Consumers can search the list of disciplined doctors for free. For $10, they can view and print disciplinary reports on up to 10 individual doctors over a one-year period in any state listed. The Web site contains information about doctors in Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming. More states will be added throughout the year.

The information on the Questionable Doctors site is generally more comprehensive than information on state medical board Web sites. If a doctor has been disciplined in one state, such as West Virginia, but is licensed in multiple states, the Web sites for the other state medical boards will not include the West Virginia discipline. Similarly, if a West Virginia-licensed doctor has been disciplined in another state, that information will not show up on the West Virginia medical board Web site. Questionable Doctors online includes such cross-references. Questionable Doctors also lists doctors who have been disciplined by federal agencies, such as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency – information that state board Web sites do not have.

Even when West Virginia takes action against a doctor, it usually doesn’t stop them from practicing. Doctors who were disciplined but are currently allowed to practice in West Virginia include:

  • A doctor who used her influence in the physician-patient relationship to engage the patient in sexual activity. A revocation of her license was stayed and she was merely put on probation for 60 months; and
  • A doctor who was disciplined for sexual abuse or misconduct with a patient and unprofessional conduct for engaging in a sexual relationship with a patient.

"For many of the offenses committed by West Virginia doctors, the disciplinary actions have been dangerously lenient," said Sidney Wolfe, M.D., director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. "The majority of West Virginia doctors who committed one or more of the five most serious offenses weren’t required to stop practicing, even temporarily. Therefore, it is likely that they are still practicing in West Virginia and that their patients are not aware of their offenses."

Counting only the two most serious disciplinary actions taken against a physician in each case, there were 417 disciplinary actions issued against 293 doctors in West Virginia over the 10-year period covered by the Questionable Doctors Online database. For the five most serious offenses, there were: 25 actions taken against doctors because of criminal convictions; 36 for substandard care, incompetence or negligence; 25 for misprescribing or overprescribing drugs; and 26 for substance abuse. However, the data provided to Public Citizen by the state’s board did not specify the offense in some cases.

Of the 36 actions taken against doctors for substandard care, incompetence or negligence, only nine (25 percent) involved license revocation, suspension or surrender. Similarly, of the 26 actions taken for substance abuse, only three (12 percent) involved revocation, suspension or surrender.

"All too often, state medical boards are more concerned about protecting the reputations of doctors than doing their job, which is to protect unsuspecting patients from doctors who may be incompetent or negligent," Wolfe said. "West Virginia has an appalling record of letting serious and sometimes repeat offenders off the hook."

Public Citizen also has published a ranking of state medical boards, based on the number of serious disciplinary actions (license revocations, surrenders, suspensions and probation/restrictions) per 1,000 doctors in each state. In 2002, nationally there were 3.56 serious actions taken for every 1,000 physicians. West Virginia ranked No. 13 on the list, with 22 serious sanctions levied in a state with 4,296 doctors, for a rate of 5.12 per 1,000 doctors. Three states – Wyoming, North Dakota and Alaska – had a rate of serious disciplinary actions at least one and a half times that of West Virginia. (To view the ranking, click here.)

The West Virginia Board of Medicine could be doing much more to discipline poorly performing doctors, Wolfe said, many doctors who are responsible for multiple malpractice payments or settlements have never been disciplined by the state. It ranks third worst among all 50 states and the District of Columbia in terms of its percentage of repeat offender doctors (those with three or more malpractice claims).

Repeat offenders are responsible for most malpractice costs in West Virginia. Doctors who paid two or more malpractice claims are responsible for 62.2 percent of all payments between September 1990 and September 2002, according to Public Citizen research based on the federal government’s National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB). Just 3.5 percent of the state’s doctors (all of whom made three or more malpractice payments) are responsible for 36.5 percent of all payments. Public Citizen has asked the board to investigate 20 doctors who have lost or settled five or more medical malpractice cases but who have never been disciplined. One doctor settled 40 malpractice suits in four years; another settled 36 malpractice suits in two years.

Public Citizen recommends that states promptly make public all of their board disciplinary actions, malpractice payouts and hospital disciplinary actions; strengthen medical practice statutes; restructure their medical boards to sever any links with state medical societies; and increase funding and staffing for medical boards.

Public Citizen has long sought greater consumer access to information about doctors, and there have been recent improvements in making that information available. Most state medical boards now provide some physician information on the Internet, but the information about disciplinary actions varies greatly, is often inadequate and can be difficult for people to access. Information about doctor discipline, including state sanctions, hospital disciplinary actions and medical malpractice awards is now contained in the NPDB, but that database is kept secret from the public.

"HMOs, hospitals and medical boards can look at the National Practitioner Data Bank, but consumers cannot," Wolfe said. "It is time we lifted the veil of secrecy surrounding doctors and allowed the people who have the most to lose from questionable doctors to get the information they need to protect themselves and their families."

The information on the site involves disciplinary actions from 1992 through 2001. Information comes from all 50 state medical boards, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Food and Drug Administration.

Using the information from the state and federal agencies, Public Citizen created a database containing the doctor’s name, degree, license number, date of birth, location, the disciplinary state or agency, the date of the disciplinary action, the nature of the discipline and available information about the case. Public Citizen asked all the state medical boards to provide information about court actions that may have overruled or changed previous disciplinary actions. Any disciplinary actions that were overturned by courts or for which litigation ended in the doctor’s favor were deleted from the database.

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CONSUMER INFORMATION: Consumers will be able to search for names of disciplined doctors in the online database for free. For a $10 subscription, they can obtain detailed disciplinary reports on up to 10 physicians over a one-year period in any of the states listed. To order on the Internet, go to www.questionabledoctors.org.

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