Should patients be informed when their doctor is on disciplinary probation for dealing drugs, being drunk or engaging in sexual misconduct on the job?
Under a legislative proposal to be heard Monday, California physicians would be required to tell patients when they’re put on probation.
Calling it a “serious consumer protection issue,” state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, chair of the Senate Business Professions and Economic Development Committee, will revive the idea Monday during a committee hearing review of the Medical Board of California.
Hill, whose doctor disclosure bill was defeated last June on the Senate floor, said “People have an overriding faith in the medical profession and don’t think to ask or question their doctor’s (status). … But that doesn’t mean there aren’t bad doctors.”
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The number of disciplined doctors in California is relatively low, about 635 – or 0.4 percent – of the state’s nearly 135,000 licensed physicians and surgeons, according to the Medical Board of California. But doctors under probation for issues such as substance abuse, medical mistakes, illegal drug sales or sexually fondling patients continue to see thousand of patients, which is worrisome to consumer advocates.
“Some are very serious and would give patients pause about going to them for treatment,” said Lisa McGiffert, director of the Safe Patient Project for Consumers Union, based in Austin, Texas. Her group, which supported last year’s bill, wants doctors to inform patients of their disciplinary status when making a medical appointment.
The California Medical Association, which represents physicians, has opposed mandatory notification in the past.
“CMA is committed to ensuring patient safety and supports a strong medical board,” said association spokeswoman Joanne Adams in a statement Thursday. “It’s also paramount that due process is observed. As a result, we have been working with Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, former secretary of the Department of Consumer Affairs, to sponsor AB 505 which requires the most egregious allegations to go through a full hearing process so that the medical board has a finding effect before deciding upon disciplinary actions. This will protect due process but allow the medical board to appropriately discipline bad actors and protect California patients.”
Typically, doctors on probation have their medical licenses revoked, but the court-approved action is stayed while they’re on probation for anywhere from three to 10 years. During that time, they’re allowed to practice but under certain stipulations. Male physicians accused of sexual misconduct, for instance, cannot examine or treat a female patient without a “chaperone.” Others are required to undergo drug or alcohol treatment or professional retraining.
In Sacramento County, 16 physicians are listed on probation, according to a list in the Senate hearing’s agenda packet.
In an emailed statement, Kimberly Kirchmeyer, the medical board’s executive director, said it is “still looking into” patient notification and will issue a formal response in coming weeks. Last year, the board launched a public campaign to boost awareness of how to check a doctor’s probationary status, either by calling 800-633-2322 or searching online at mbc.ca.gov. The online tool shows a list of court orders, felony convictions, malpractice settlements and other judgments.
McGiffert and others say checking online is a cumbersome process that requires a patient to search every time they see their doctor. Requiring doctors to directly inform patients might be “awkward and difficult,” she said, “but it’s part of the accountability. We have a system where doctors are put on probation and pretty much no one knows about it.”
The proposal is among two dozen Senate committee staff recommendations to be considered as part of the Medical Board’s “sunset” review, which is up for approval every four years.