Patients ought to find out more about doctors

Marian Hollingsworth
Marian Hollingsworth

How much do you know about your doctor?

Would you want to know if the Medical Board of California had put your doctor on probation for harming a patient, for having a drug or alcohol addiction, or for inappropriate sexual contact with a patient?

The problem is that physicians are not required to tell you they are on probation. They have to tell their insurance companies and the hospitals where they have privileges, but not their patients. And the Medical Board wants to make sure it stays that way.

The Consumers Union Safe Patient Project believes it’s time for the state Medical Board to require all probation orders to include physicians telling their patients. State health laws give patients the right to know all the risks and benefits of treatments or procedures. Your physician should be included in those risks.

Most Californians would be surprised to know that there are some 450 doctors on probation, and that the board’s data show that recidivism rates are high.

The Medical Board’s mission is to protect consumers, and last October, it adopted a policy stating that all patients should know the history of disciplinary actions of any health care provider. Board members say that the public should look up doctors on a state website called BreEZe. Yet, even these well-informed board members have complained that BreEZe is difficult to use.

It’s definitely not user-friendly. First, you must have the exact spelling and correct name; some doctors use a different name in their practice than on their medical license. It takes multiple clicks to find your doctor’s profile; then you must scroll down through page after page of medical jargon and legalese to find out the details of any probation and violation.

It’s not something you think about doing when your wife is being wheeled into the OR for an emergency C-section, or when you’re on your way to the ER with chest pains. You probably don’t worry about the doctor you’ve seen for 15 years. But you should.

I decided to look up the handful of doctors I had gone to over the last decade. I was stunned to learn that the doctor I had been referred to for a routine colonoscopy was about to start a 30-day suspension and seven-year probation. He had a long history of substance abuse and DUIs, but what finally got the board’s attention is that he went after a patient with a hatchet in an alcohol-fueled rage.

While patient advocates want physician profiles to be available on the Medical Board’s website, some patients are in nursing homes, are vision impaired or can’t afford a computer. Older patients often have a hard time with new technology, and many patients are simply not aware that the website even exists.

At the last board meeting in May, the Consumers Union Safe Patient Project asked board members to put probation transparency on the agenda for their quarterly meeting this month. The board rejected a similar request in 2012.

Board members should think long and hard about who they represent – the people of California or the doctors.

Marian Hollingsworth, who lives near San Diego, is a patient safety advocate with Consumers Union.