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Oct. 17, 2006

New Jersey Ranks First, North Dakota Ranks Last for Doctor Disciplinary Information on State Medical Board Web Sites

Public Citizen Report Rates Sites for Content and Usability; Most States Have Dangerously Inadequate Web Sites

WASHINGTON, D.C. – New Jersey ranks first and North Dakota ranks last in a new Public Citizen survey of the content and user-friendliness of doctor disciplinary information found on state medical board Web sites. Most sites were seriously deficient in providing this important information for patients. The detailed board scores for each state and recommendations for improving the Web sites can be found in a searchable data base here.

State medical boards are responsible for taking action against physician misconduct and making information about those disciplinary actions available to the public. Physicians may be disciplined for offenses such as negligence, incompetence, sexual misconduct and breaking criminal laws. Patients need to weigh this information when choosing a doctor.

Boards historically have been reluctant to publicize disciplinary actions, but since Massachusetts became the first state to require that information about such actions be available on the Internet in 1996, almost all states now provide some form of information online. Available data range from detailed information about individual doctors’ disciplinary actions to mere descriptions of doctors with no disciplinary information. Some sites allow convenient, multi-variable searches while others bury disciplinary information in unsearchable documents.

The report, based on a survey conducted by Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, graded state medical board Web sites for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In 14 states where the licenses of medical doctors and doctors of osteopathy are overseen by different boards, Public Citizen evaluated each board separately, resulting in a total of 65 boards. Outside experts in the field of physician discipline helped devise a weighting scale for the different elements.

Public Citizen greatly expanded on previous reports it issued in 2000 and 2002, this time grading states on more detailed criteria for user-friendliness and including, for the first time, the use of outside sources of discipline, such as hospitals, the federal government, insurance company malpractice payouts and criminal convictions.

The report covered eight categories in determining its grades: types of physician-identifying information, board disciplinary action information, disciplinary actions taken by hospitals, disciplinary actions taken by the federal government (Medicare, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Food and Drug Administration), malpractice information, criminal conviction information, Web Site search capabilities and other information. The survey found a wide range of Web site quality, with very few states providing disciplinary actions other than those taken by the boards themselves. Forty-four of the 65 boards provided none of this external information, thereby losing 40 points on their possible score of 100.

The 10 states receiving the highest overall scores (out of 100) for their sites are: New Jersey (83.7 points), Virginia (79.2), Massachusetts (79.1), New York (70.9), Vermont – medical only (70.9), Georgia (68.7), California – medical only (68.0), Idaho (65.0), Florida – osteopathy only (64.1); and Florida – medical only (64.1). The median score was only 42.4; three-fourths of the boards had grossly inadequate scores of fewer than 60 of the possible 100 points.

The 10 states receiving the lowest scores are: North Dakota (12.3), New Mexico – osteopathy only (12.5), West Virginia – osteopathy only (13.0), Louisiana (14.9), South Dakota (16.6), Arkansas (16.9), Alaska (18.4), Indiana (20.1), Montana (20.3); and Minnesota (20.5).

Five states provide no disciplinary information, and an additional eight states do not allow users to search for disciplinary actions. Twenty states provide information about malpractice payouts, 16 provide information about criminal convictions and 14 provide information about hospital disciplinary actions. The Web sites frequently omit disciplinary actions taken against doctors by other states. Physicians can hold licenses to practice in multiple states, but when a physician is disciplined in one state, other states (or the patients in those states) may not be aware of the action.

“All sites should provide detailed disciplinary information that is updated frequently and includes the action taken, the date of the action, the offense leading to the action, a summary of the details of the action and the full text of the board order,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. In addition, Wolfe said, “All state legislatures should pass laws to require medical and osteopathic boards to obtain and post verified criminal, malpractice, hospital and federal disciplinary information about physicians and to provide that information to consumers in an easily-accessible format.”

“The current mantra in health care is consumer choice,” said Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “But there can be no meaningful consumer choice if critical information is denied to patients. Clearly there is more work to be done to ensure that patients and their doctors have all the information they need to make informed choices about their medical care. We urge people in all states to demand that their boards improve the quality of these important Web sites.”

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