State medical boards are not protecting patients, our new study shows

Dr. Sidney Wolfe

You would think that when doctors are disciplined for serious wrongdoing by the hospitals where they work, state medical boards would similarly discipline the dangerous doctors so they can’t go elsewhere and injure more patients.

You would be wrong.

A new Public Citizen study shows that state medical boards have failed to discipline 55 percent of the nation’s doctors who either lost their clinical privileges or had them restricted by the hospitals where they worked.

Why is this important? Well, hospital disciplinary reports are peer-review actions and, as such, are one of the most valuable sources of information for medical board oversight. Subsequent state medical board action against a physician’s license is a crucial next step to protect patients. Boards have the authority to oversee and even limit the practice of a disciplined physician, which not only yields a more complete record for the purpose of patient safety but also serves to inform other state boards and future employers.

We found that of 10,672 physicians listed in the NPDB for having clinical privileges revoked or restricted by hospitals, just 45 percent of them also had one or more licensing actions taken against them by state medical boards. That means 55 percent of them – 5,887 doctors – escaped any licensing action by the state. The study examined the NPDB’s Public Use File from its inception in 1990 to 2009. Said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and overseer of the study,

One of two things is happening, and either is alarming.  Either state medical boards are receiving this disturbing information from hospitals but not acting upon it, or much less likely, they are not receiving the information at all. Something is broken and needs to be fixed.

Public Citizen today sent the report to Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, urging the agency’s Office of Inspector General to reinstitute investigations of state medical boards, something it has not done since 1993. Public Citizen also is notifying the 33 medical boards that have had the worst records in disciplining these doctors.