Healthy Choices

Doctors on probation: Medical board still weighing how to inform patients

Mike Walker and Lois Ranftle of the Medical Board of California meet with Sacramento resident Jack Gonzales (right) during a recent “Verify a License” event at Arden Fair Mall, showing consumers how to check their doctor’s licensing status. In Gonzales’ case, the site showed his physician was in good standing.
Mike Walker and Lois Ranftle of the Medical Board of California meet with Sacramento resident Jack Gonzales (right) during a recent “Verify a License” event at Arden Fair Mall, showing consumers how to check their doctor’s licensing status. In Gonzales’ case, the site showed his physician was in good standing. The Chronicle

California doctors on disciplinary probation don’t have to notify their patients. At least for now.

In an 11-1 vote, the Medical Board of California turned down a request that all doctors placed on probation for varied offenses – including sexual misconduct, drug or alcohol abuse, or medical negligence – be required to tell their patients, verbally and in writing.

But, in what could be a first-in-the-country move, the board is forming a task force to consider less “prescriptive” ways to notify patients when their doctor is on probation for medical misdeeds.

“It would be a game-changer,” said Lisa McGiffert, director of the Consumers Union Safe Patient Project, which works on medical safety issues in multiple states. “California would be the first state to (inform patients) systematically.”

In a statement Monday, the board signaled it’s ready to consider wider notification than it now offers. “The public needs to know when a physician has been disciplined and put on probation,” it said. The task force, which has yet to be assembled, will “ensure the public has easy access to the information they need to be an informed patient.”

The notification proposal by Consumers Union, an arm of Consumer Reports magazine, was heard Friday at the Medical Board’s quarterly meeting in San Diego.

As of September, about 500 licensed California doctors are serving state-ordered probation for various offenses. In the six-county Sacramento area, 27 doctors are on probation, including 13 in Sacramento County, five in Placer and one in Yuba.

Under the Consumers Union proposal, those doctors would be required to notify patients when they call to make an appointment and when they check in at the doctor’s office. Patients would sign a written acknowledgment of the probationary status. Doctors also would be required to post a probation notice in the office.

But the board, composed mainly of physicians, voted down the proposal.

“They thought it was too prescriptive and would be penalizing doctors who are on probation for relatively minor violations or violations that are not related to practice of medicine, like not paying child support,” said attorney Julie Fellmeth, administrative director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego, who attended the hearing.

Fellmeth, who supported the Consumers Union proposal, is hopeful the task force will find a compromise.

“There might be a middle ground somewhere. We could pick out serious violations where patients should be notified, but maybe not in all the ways that Consumers Union wanted.”

Previously, doctor groups like the California Medical Association called the proposal unnecessary. “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,” said association spokeswoman Molly Weedn.

In the meantime, the medical board has launched a “Verify a License” consumer campaign, urging patients to look up their physician’s disciplinary status on the board’s website, mbc.ca.gov, or by calling 800-633-2322. Last week, medical board staffers hosted displays at Arden Fair mall that showed consumers how to look up their physician or surgeon online.

Typically, California doctors on probation have their license revoked, but the action is stayed, pending completion of three to five years of probation. Probation terms vary, depending on the offense. Most require taking a class in ethics, medical recordkeeping, drug prescribing or another subject. Some require regular drug testing, while others stipulate the doctor cannot supervise any physician assistant or see female patients without another adult in the room.

“Probation is not a minor action; it’s a major action,” said Consumer Union’s McGiffert. “Every doctor makes mistakes, but these are repeat offenders, not isolated incidents. Their patients need to know, so they can make decisions if they really want to continue with that doctor.”

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck

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