Study: negligent physicians rarely face punishment by state medical boards

A recent study by USA Today found that state medical boards rarely take swift action-or any action at all-to punish physicians that have committed malpractice. In many cases, the boards failed to suspend the licenses of physicians who had been found liable in medical malpractice lawsuits or had been terminated or barred from private medical clinics or hospitals.

The study also found that in many cases, state medical boards failed to place any kind of restrictions on the offending physician's license to practice or write prescriptions. As a result, many physicians who were found responsible for harming (and killing, in some cases) their patients were able to continue practicing medicine unfettered by any medical board action.

For the study, USA Today reviewed medical malpractice data from the National Practitioner Data Bank, which records instances when a physician is convicted of malpractice or is suspended from a hospital or clinic. The researchers found that between 2001 and 2011, about 6,000 physicians were put on restricted duties by their private clinics or hospitals. However only half of these doctors faced fines or restrictions on their licenses from their state medical board.

In one outrageous example of board ineptitude cited by the study, a physician's negligence in prescribing a poisonous combination of drugs had killed a patient. In many prior instances, the physician had been fined by the state medical board and had been on probation. Despite a long history of incompetence, it took the state medical board four years after the patient's death to revoke the physician's license.

According to the study's data, this example is not uncommon. It was found that nationwide the doctors with the worst records of malpractice were able to keep treating patients. Between 2001 and 2011, it was discovered that only 800 physicians were responsible for 10 percent of the total malpractice verdicts and settlements nationwide. Despite their proven incompetence, these physicians only faced the suspension of their licenses in one out of five cases.

Boards claim hands are tied

Medical boards claim that they would like to take swift action, but are restricted by procedure in the disciplinary process. Under the laws of most states, physicians have certain due process rights, meaning that the board cannot strip their licenses until an investigation, hearings and a trial has been completed. Many medical boards claim that many physicians have the ability to drag out this process by requesting multiple hearings.

In addition, many times instances of malpractice never reach the state medical board's attention, as hospitals are often not inclined to report instances of misconduct to the boards. The study found that hospital peer review committees are often staffed with physicians, who often cover for each other. As a result, about 47 percent-quite a high number-of hospitals nationwide reported that they never have restricted or revoked a doctor's practice privileges.

Until there is major reform in the system, it is likely that medical boards and hospitals will continue to fail to adequately protect patients against physicians with a proven record of incompetence. Fortunately, the law gives victims of medical malpractice the right to seek compensation. If you or a loved one has been injured by a physician's mistakes, contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney to learn about your right to damages under the law.