If your doctor was disciplined for harming other patients, would you want to know?
In California, the state Medical Board is responsible for protecting patients from dangerous doctors. More than 600 physicians and surgeons across the state are currently on probation for a wide-range of violations including sexual assault, insurance fraud, and medical negligence that has resulted in the deaths of patients. Despite the severity of such violations, the Medical Board does not require doctors to notify their patients of their probation status. According to the board, disclosing such details would “harm the patient-doctor relationship.”
The Medical Board has come under fire in recent months for what some are calling a lack of oversight. In February, several patients and their families gathered at the state capital to express their anger and testify before legislators.
“My sister was dead,” said an emotional Eric Andrist. Overcome with pain and anger, Andrist recounted losing his sister, Cally, to what he described as “poor medical care.”
“She, too, was dead from gross medical errors,” he explained to lawmakers.
Is Your Doctor on Probation?
Nearly 110,990 physicians and surgeons currently practice medicine in California. More than 600 of those doctors are on probation, according to the most recent data available from the Medical Board. Their offenses include deadly medical errors, drug use, and criminal convictions. Probation details for those doctors can be found on the Medical Board’s website, but it’s up to patients to find locate the information since doctors are not required to notify them directly of their probation status.
“Those doctors have [historically], a 30 percent recidivism rate,” state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, told NBC Bay Area.
Hill chaired the February hearing that centered on the Medical Board. He is now proposing major reforms to boost patient protections. His legislation includes a proposal to require doctors to directly notify their patients if they are practicing while on probation.
Medical Board President Dev Gnanadev, however, believes forcing all doctors to disclose their probation status would do more harm than good.
“If I go to a doctor ... and if the person says to me, ‘Oh by the way, I’m on probation,’ there goes whatever trust I had – completely gone,” Gnanadev said during the hearing.
Medical Board Executive Director Kim Kirchmeyer also testified, explaining why her colleagues on the board worry about the implications of forcing all doctors to disclose their probation status.
“They didn’t want it to interfere with the patient-physician relationship,” Kirchmeyer said. “They were afraid it would have an impact on the time frame that the physician would be able to see the patient ... because so many questions would come up at that time.”
Still, Sen. Hill found the board’s argument difficult to accept.
“When a doctor goes on probation, they have to notify the hospital they’re affiliated with, they have to notify their insurance company, but they don’t have to notify the most important part of the health care continuum, which is the patient,” Hill said.
Last week, the Medical Board released a letter, revising the agency’s stance, saying it now supports doctors disclosing their probation status to patients in cases of sexual abuse and criminal convictions. But the board’s proposal would not require some doctors who were disciplined for negligence to notify their patients.
"It’s speaking out of both sides of their mouths, and it really shows how little physicians at the medical board want patients to be informed.”
“The Medical Board continues to fail in its primary mission, which is patient protection,” Consumer Watchdog Executive Director, Carmin Boulder testified during the hearing.
MEDICAL BOARD AND DOCTOR DISCIPLINE
Despite the board’s revised stance on probation, it continues to face criticism over its process for disciplining doctors.
Each year, the board receives more than 8,000 complaints concerning physicians and surgeons, with only a few hundred of those complaints resulting in discipline. But even when investigators determine a doctor acted inappropriately, it takes an average of 909 days from when a complaint is submitted before a physician faces any kind of penalty. State regulations allow nearly all of those doctors to continue to see patients in the meantime.
“The system was set up to fail,” investigator Michelle Veverka testified. Under the current system, Medical Board investigators work in conjunction with the Attorney General’s Office to bring cases against doctors. However, Veverka says that partnership leads to inaction.
“We had to investigate and prosecute these matters being in two separate agencies,” Veverka said. “It has made it very difficult and very cumbersome.”
NBC Bay Area first exposed the communication breakdown between the Medical Board and the Attorney General’s Office last year when it profiled Mario Gusman.
Mario was an avid runner who believes a misdiagnosis by his doctor left him a multiple amputee.
“It’s like they steal your life away from you,” Gusman told NBC Bay Area.
Gusman filed a complaint with the Medical Board who recommended the Attorney General’s office discipline his doctor. However, the Attorney General’s Office decided not to pursue the case, citing “insufficient evidence.”
Hill’s legislation, which includes language to restructure the investigations process and require doctors disclose their probation status, is expected to be the subject of debate during a Senate committee on Monday. A final vote on the bill, however, is likely months away.
“The California Medical Board has really broken down in a number of areas,” Hill said. “In some cases, it could be life or death.”