Will Medical Board Inform Patients or Protect Docs on Probation?

Last week, the California Medical Board failed a critical test on whether it can prove to the Legislature that it has refocused its priorities on patient protection above physician interests. 
Consumers Union’s Safe Patient Project petitioned the board to require doctors to tell their patients if they are on probation. The Board rejected the petition, instead launching a task force to investigate the issue. 
But at the Medical Board’s quarterly meeting in Sacramento, the task force refused to consider even a scaled-back proposal to require disclosure by doctors placed on probation for only the most serious of offenses, such as sexual abuse of a patient, self-prescribing narcotics, or gross negligence that resulted in a patient’s death.
Instead, the Board fell back on its failed model of placing the burden on patients to investigate their doctors. The task force spent most of its time discussing how to improve its website – where physician disciplinary actions can be found by the most determined investigators – and public education about how to find the website. 
This strategy doesn't work. The vast majority of patients have no idea they can look up a doctor's record beyond Yelp reviews, and they're not likely to learn. As Consumers Union wrote
…the Medical Board has acknowledged that it does not have enough funding to sustain the kind of ongoing campaign needed to maintain public awareness about how to check up on problem doctors through its website.  Consumers Union detailed a number of concerns in its original petition about the technical nature of the information available on the Medical Board’s website and how many Californians have limited access to the internet.  Further, since a small percentage of licensed doctors in California are on probation (currently around 600 out of 102,000), and even fewer for serious reasons, Consumers Union’s proposal is a much more effective and efficient way of informing patients who may be directly affected.
Three years ago, during its sunset review of the Medical Board, the chairs of the legislative Business and Professions committees threatened to shut it down, citing “its failure to protect patients from overprescribing doctors” and “serious questions about the consumer protection performance of the [Medical Board] in protecting consumers from dangerous physicians.” The Legislature ultimately agreed to extend the Medical Board’s tenure for four years until 2017, instead of the usual ten years, on the condition it improved its patient protection credentials. 
The Board’s refusal – thus far – to take seriously the need to inform patients about physicians whom the Medical Board has determined merit serious disciplinary action doesn't bode well for its extension when it comes up for review again in the Legislature next year. (Another problem cited by the legislature during the 2013 review – the extreme amount of time it takes for the Board to investigate a doctor once a consumer complaint is made – has only gotten worse since then.) 
As lawmakers wrote in 2013: “The consumers of California deserve a proactive Medical Board that places patient protection and interests first ahead of physician interests.”
Last week, the Medical Board failed to meet that challenge. But it's not too late for the Board to ensure that patients have the information they deserve when they seek out medical care.

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