A new investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reveals at least 500 physicians have been publicly disciplined, chastised or barred from practicing by one state medical board who have been allowed to practice elsewhere with a clean license. Because of the way state medical licensing works, a doctor can easily run into trouble in one state and simply move his practice to another state to avoid discipline.
And their patients are generally kept in the dark
For example, when it was set up 30 years ago, the National Practitioner Data Bank was supposed to keep state medical boards andhospitals apprised of doctor transgressions around the country. “The intent was to help make sure that physicians were not able to go from state to state without any past history of activity being known”, said David Loewenstein, who oversees the data bank.
But it hasn’t worked out that way, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. First, the information has never been available to the public, so a patient can’t use the data bank to find out, for example, how many times their doctor has been sued for malpractice or slapped with a disciplinary action.
And, as it turns out, state medical licensing boards, who do have access to the data bank, are not, in fact, using it. According to the Data Bank, boards rarely take advantage of the system. For example, of the 64 medical boards, only 13 subscribe for automatic updates from the data bank.
Each medical board can have very different rules, too. A 2016 study in the British Medical Journal found annual average rates of discipline ranged from 1.9 actions per 1,000 doctors in Massachusetts to 10.3 in Delaware. Alabama’s annual rate of discipline is 5.3 per 1,000 doctors. This ranks 45 out of the 53 boards in the study.
There are also big differences in the amount and quality of information each board makes available about doctors to the public. Like the majority of states, Alabama reports only its own disciplinary actions. A patient in Alabama cannot turn to the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners to find out if their doctor has been disciplined by other state boards, or been sued for medical malpractice, or beenfound guilty of a felony.