For twenty years now, state medical boards responsible for disciplining doctors have failed to do so to more than half of the practitioners whose privileges were rescinded by their hospitals.

A recent study, conducted by consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, found that 63 percent of Florida’s doctors whose privileges were revoked by a hospital were never punished by the state’s Board of Medicine.  This percentage was higher than the national average reported by the study.

Overall, thirty-two states were guilty of letting offending doctors off the hook with absolutely no reprimand, allowing them the potential to move on and practice elsewhere.

Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of the Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and overseer of the study said “One of two things is happening, and either is alarming.  Either state medical boards are receiving this information from hospitals but not acting upon it or, much less likely, they are not receiving the information at all.  Something is broken and needs to be fixed.”

Upon the release of the study’s results, The Orlando Sentinel attempted to reach the Florida Department of Health (overseers of the state’s Board of Medicine) for comment.  While a spokeswoman told the newspaper that they were still reviewing the report, several board members offered no response at all to -inquiries.

The report spanned a 10 year period and was based on data from the National Practitioner Data Bank.  Of the 10,672 physicians who faced hospital sanctions during the recorded period, more than half avoided any discipline or licensing action from their respective state medical boards.

The data bank used for the study was put in place to stop problematic practitioners from moving from one hospital or state to another.  Licensing boards are required to report any and all actions that revoke, suspend, or restrict a license for reasons connected to a doctor’s professional conduct or competence.

Additionally, hospital administrators are required to report disciplinary actions that negatively affect a doctor’s privileges for more than 30 days and must also consult the data bank when assigning or reassigning medical staff.

All settlements against physicians and other health-care providers are also required to be reported by malpractice insurance carriers.  Entities that have access to this information include hospitals and health care organizations, state licensing boards, plaintiff’s attorneys in a malpractice suit, and some federal agencies.

Dr. Wolfe says that “in 20 years, only 10,000 doctors have ever been disciplined – which is an indictment of hospitals.  But once hospitals take action, it’s pretty serious.  Of those, 5,800 were thrown off the staff of the hospital.”  Despite this, Wolfe reports that state medical boards did nothing to discipline many of the doctors any further.  “Many of these doctors are still practicing medicine,” he added.

One particularly troubling case that Dr. Wolfe’s staff found was of a Florida doctor whose hospital privileges were revoked in 2002 for incompetence.  Nevertheless, he managed to rack up 10 medical malpractice reports between 1992 and 2009.  Included in his list of offenses (which actually killed two patients) was the performance of an unnecessary procedure, a misdiagnosis, and on one occasion he managed to leave a foreign object inside a patient.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of this doctor’s incompetence, the state of Florida failed to discipline him.  Worse still, the report was unable to name this particular doctor because the database does not provide access to physicians’ names.

Dr. Wolfe said he is urging US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to have the agency inspector general’s office reinstitute investigations of state medical boards.

As he said, “Something is broken and needs to be fixed.”

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