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Discipline for U.S.Physicians with Criminal Convictions Often Lax, Public Citizen Study Finds

August 30, 2006

Discipline for U.S.Physicians with Criminal Convictions Often Lax, Public Citizen Study Finds

Group Analyzed Thousands of Disciplinary Actions Taken Against Doctors for Criminal Offenses

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Physicians disciplined by states and federal agencies for infractions related to criminal conduct between 1990 and 1999 often escaped with a slap on the wrist, and many are practicing today, according to a Public Citizen study published in the current issue of Health Matrix, a publication of Case Western Reserve University School of Law. Some of the 2,247 physicians disciplined for criminal conduct during that time were even subsequently hired by the federal government to serve as physicians at federal prisons, the study found.

The authors determined that 44 percent of entries for disciplinary actions related to criminal activity directly involved patients, and an additional 33 percent involved the health care system but not patients. Infractions involving patients tended to result in more severe sanctions.

The most common forms of criminal behavior resulting in disciplinary actions were insurance fraud and prescribing violations, each representing 29 percent of entries related to criminal conduct. Overall, 59 percent of entries involving criminal conduct received a severe disciplinary action. Sixty-seven percent of insurance fraud convictions and 36 percent of convictions related to controlled substances were associated with only non-severe discipline.

“The punishments meted out to doctors who break the law are not strong enough to protect the public health,” said Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and an author of the article. “Too many physicians convicted of serious crimes continue to make life or death decisions in the clinical setting. That is unacceptable.”

For example, a New York physician provided two false HIV test results to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, but his two-year probation was stayed. A California emergency doctor who was convicted of felony possession of cocaine – including self-use and supplying cocaine to addicts as well as gross negligence in attempting unaided emergency resuscitation of his girlfriend who overdosed – received a stayed revocation and three years probation from the state medical board. He is currently licensed to practice in California.

The article’s authors make several suggestions for improving the way state medical boards handle physicians who commit crimes, including stiffer penalties, more transparency and an interstate tracking system to ensure that doctors who have been disciplined in one state can’t apply to set up practice in another state without medical board officials in the second state being aware of the doctors’ past actions.

Research for the article was conducted by Lurie, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and Dr. Paul Jung, senior lecturer at the University of Maryland, College Park. The study’s authors created a database of all state disciplining agencies and several federal ones (the Medicare program, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Food and Drug Administration). The database included 31,110 disciplinary entries against 20,125 physicians. The doctors with criminal convictions were drawn from this larger database.

“Data from this study clearly show that the current system allows questionable doctors to continue practicing medicine even after they have behaved in illegal, incompetent or hazardous ways,” said Jung. “The medical profession runs the risk of betraying the public’s trust if physicians with criminal convictions continue to practice without sufficient punishment.”

A copy of the article is available at https://www.citizen.org/publications/release.cfm?ID=7454.