State Medical Boards Fail to Protect the Public From Doctors Who Commit Sexual Misconduct, Groundbreaking Study Shows

Feb. 3, 2016

State Medical Boards Fail to Protect the Public From Doctors Who Commit Sexual Misconduct, Groundbreaking Study Shows

Research Shows Need for Medical Boards to Be More Vigilant

WASHINGTON, D.C. – State medical boards – which are supposed to stop dangerous doctors from practicing – are failing to protect the public from many doctors already known to have committed sexual misconduct, a groundbreaking Public Citizen study published today in PLOS ONE shows.

Seventy percent of U.S. physicians – 177 out of 253 – who had engaged in sexual misconduct that led to sanctions by hospitals or other health care organizations or a malpractice payment were not disciplined by state medical boards for their unethical behavior, according to the research.

The study is the first published that used information on physician sexual misconduct from the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB).

“It’s clear that medical boards are allowing some doctors with evidence of sexual misconduct to continue endangering patients and staff,” said Dr. Azza AbuDagga, health services researcher for Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and lead author of the study. Public Citizen for years has pushed state medical boards to do a better job of disciplining problem doctors. “These boards must pay more attention to sexual misconduct that leads to health care organizations cracking down or to lawsuits.”

AbuDagga co-authored the study with Dr. Sidney Wolfe, founder and senior adviser of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group; Dr. Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group; and Dr. Robert Oshel, retired NPDB associate director for research and disputes.

When state medical boards do act on sexual misconduct, though, they take severe measures in the vast majority of cases: For the 974 NPDB reports of medical boards disciplining physicians in response to physician sexual misconduct, the boards took serious licensure actions – such as revoking, suspending or restricting the medical license – in 89 percent of cases. In contrast, state medical boards took such severe actions in only approximately two-thirds of cases involving other types of misconduct. 

“These numbers show that when state medical boards take action, the action rightly tends to be much more severe for physicians who engaged in sexual misconduct than other offenses,” said Wolfe. “Now, the medical boards need to pay increased attention to sexual misconduct that led to health care organizations cracking down or to lawsuits. State medical boards have full access to the NPDB data. The boards must protect the public.”

The NPDB is a national database established under the Health Care Quality Improvement Act of 1986. It is the only national repository that receives reports of disciplinary actions taken by state medical boards and clinical peer review committees at hospitals and other health care organizations. It also is the only database to receive reports of malpractice payments made on behalf of physicians by malpractice insurance companies or other payers.

Public Citizen examined physician reports in the NPDB from Jan. 1, 2003, through Sept. 30, 2013. The study focused on sexual misconduct-related licensure, clinical privileges and malpractice payment reports for all physicians, including medical doctors, osteopathic doctors and intern/resident physicians.

A “licensure” sanction refers to an action – such as revocation or restriction of a doctor’s medical license – taken by a medical board. A “clinical privileges” sanction refers to actions such as revocation or denial of clinical privileges, voluntary surrender of privileges and restrictions on a doctor’s ability to practice. These actions are taken by hospitals, nursing homes or managed care organizations.

The analysis found that 1,039 physicians had one or more sexual misconduct-related reports, and of these, 786 (76 percent) had been disciplined only by a medical board. The study also revealed that the remaining 253 physicians had one or more clinical privilege reports or malpractice payment reports related to sexual misconduct, but 177 did not have a report of state medical board licensure action for such misconduct.  

While the study provides important new information, it likely highlights a possible overall underreporting or inaction related to physician sexual misconduct. The authors caution that because sexual misconduct-related reports accounted for only 1 percent of the total reports in the NPDB over an almost 10-year period, their study “represents only the tip of the iceberg of physician sexual misconduct in the U.S.”

Read the study.

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