Your doctor overprescribed narcotics. Your doctor was arrested on a hit-and-run DUI. Your doctor is accused of fondling patients. Your doctor’s negligent treatment resulted in a patient’s death.
In each of those California cases, the doctor is now on probation, ordered by the Medical Board of California.
Should you be told when booking your next appointment?
That’s what Consumers Union wants to happen.
Across California, nearly 500 physicians and surgeons are on official probation for a variety of offenses, including substance abuse, medical negligence and sexual misconduct. This group makes up only a sliver – 0.3 percent – of more than 130,720 doctors and surgeons practicing in California. But they can potentially see and treat hundreds of thousands of patients.
Patients are “unknowingly going to doctors who have had a problem serious enough to put them on probation,” said Lisa McGiffert, director of the Consumers Union Safe Patient Project, which works on different medical safety issues in multiple states.
“Probation means there is enough concern about this doctor that the board wants to keep their eye on (him or her),” McGiffert said. “We believe that the patients seeing the doctor should be informed so they can make their own decision about whether they want to continue seeing that doctor.”
In the six-county Sacramento area, there are 27 doctors on probation, including 13 in Sacramento, five in Placer County and one in Yuba County, according to records supplied to Consumers Union by the state’s medical board.
In a petition scheduled for a hearing by the medical board at its Oct. 29-30 meeting in San Diego, Consumers Union is asking that every California doctor on probation be required to inform their patients – in multiple ways.
First, patients would be told the doctor’s probationary status when they call to make a medical appointment. When they show up for an office visit, a written disclosure of the doctor’s status would be signed by the patient. The doctor also would be required to maintain a log of each patient’s notification. In addition, a notice would be posted in the doctor’s office with a brief description of the offenses that led to the probationary status, as well as any restrictions on the doctor’s practice.
“We need all of those to be done in order to fully inform patients,” said McGiffert, whose group is an advocacy arm of Consumer Reports magazine.
Probation is the midlevel disciplinary action meted out to doctors, ranging from a public reprimand up to revocation and surrender of a medical license. Doctors on probation have typically had their licenses “revoked,” but that action is stayed pending completion of their probationary term.
In most cases, doctors are placed on probation for three to five years, with certain conditions, such as completing professional classes in ethics, drug prescribing and medical recordkeeping. In addition, many are prohibited from supervising physician assistants in their offices. Some must undergo quarterly monitoring by an assigned physician.
“Our goal is rehabilitating the physician so they can meet the proper standard of care,” said Kimberly Kirchmeyer, executive director of the medical board. “If they violate that probation, we want to be able to petition to revoke their license.”
Efforts to reach some of the Sacramento-area doctors who are on probation were unsuccessful.
The California Medical Association, which represents the state’s physicians, opposes mandatory notification.
“CMA is concerned that a requirement like this would put a burden on the physician-patient relationship and take time away from important patient appointments that are already limited,” said CMA spokeswoman Molly Weedn. “This information is already public and available online and can be accessed by anyone. This is a duplicative burden that will interfere with patient care.”
On the medical board’s website, a “Verify a License” link allows consumers to look up their doctor’s disciplinary history, including probation. Consumers Union also has compiled a list, California Doctors on Probation, showing every doctor as of September, listed by name, county, terms of probation and a link to the official documentation of their probationary offenses.
“Consumer protection is the primary mission of the medical board,” said Kirchmeyer. Toward that goal, she said, the board has launched a consumer campaign to show patients how to look up their physicians’ licensing history online. Called “Verify a License,” it includes a YouTube tutorial, posters and fliers, and varied outreach events, including an information table this week at Arden Fair mall in Sacramento (see box).
“We do think consumers are in the dark about this,” Kirchmeyer said, noting the statewide outreach will be an ongoing effort to make more consumers aware that they can easily look up their doctor online. “We’ve got it down to three clicks is all it takes to look up your physician.”
Consumers Union contends the burden should be on the doctor to inform patients. “All this information is on this public site, but it’s not really easy for the average person to find,” including those without access to computers such as the elderly or low-income residents, said McGiffert. “The average consumer doesn’t think, ‘Maybe I’ll look up (my doctor’s) record.’ A person might have been going to a doctor for years and be unaware there’s a problem or the doctor has been put on probation.”
The Consumers Union effort would be the second time in three years the issue of mandatory notification has come before the state medical board. In 2012, a board staff recommendation suggested that doctors be required to inform patients. That recommendation was voted down by members of the board, which comprises eight physicians and seven public members. Currently, there are two vacancies among the public members.
Consumers Union said it was not aware of any states that currently require doctors to inform patients when they’ve been placed on probation. California is the first state where Consumers Union is proposing the mandatory patient notification.
The group says the public is behind the idea. According to a 2011 nationwide Consumer Reports survey, about 79 percent of respondents said a doctor whose license is limited, suspended or revoked should not be treating patients until their license is in good standing.
“That showed us that in California as well as other states that the medical boards are out of step with what the public thinks they should be doing,” said McGiffert. “We were blown away by that question.”
Some state lawmakers have expressed concern about whether the public is being adequately informed about transgressions by medical professionals, including dentists and others.
Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said patients should be able to assume that doctors are professionally licensed and provide a certain level of care. “If there’s a breach of that license and that standard of care, the public has a right to be notified,” said Hill, who leads the Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee. “The current system is not enough.”
Hill’s committee will hold a hearing Thursday to examine whether California’s professional licensing boards are dominated by practitioners of the professions they’re supposed to discipline. Hill said he “was shocked” earlier this year when an Orange County pain management specialist, Dr. Van Huy Vu, was placed on five years’ probation in June for causing the deaths of at least two patients who overdosed on painkillers, as well as other medical misconduct.
“If I’m going to that physician, the fact that he killed a few people, I’d want to know that,” said Hill.
Vu, who runs the California Pain Center in Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley, was ordered in June to undergo classes on ethics, prescribing drugs and medical record-keeping, as well as maintain records of all controlled substances he prescribes. During his five-year probation, he cannot supervise physician assistants and is to be monitored quarterly by an outside physician.
Vu’s website shows that he is currently practicing.
Is your doctor on probation? How to find out
There are about 500 California doctors on probation for varied offenses, including substance abuse, sexual misconduct or medical negligence. Each has varying probation terms and conditions, such as completing extra classes on ethics and not supervising physician assistants while on probation.
Online: The Medical Board of California has a “Verify a License” link on its website, mbc.ca.gov, where consumers can check to see if their physicians are licensed and if there are any disciplinary actions against them, or call the board’s consumer line at (800) 633-2322.
Events: As part of a new consumer campaign, the medical board is hosting statewide events at shopping malls and health fairs, showing how to look up physicians online to check their licensing history. In the Sacramento area, the first event will be held Friday from 5 to 8 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at Arden Fair mall (on the first floor near Macy’s).