Medical board imperils patients

Sacramento Bee photo illustration

For years, the Medical Board of California has fended off claims that it put the interests of doctors before the safety of patients. But recent actions by the board demonstrate that Californians have reason to be concerned.

At their quarterly meeting last month in Sacramento, board members made clear they don’t want patients to be notified about doctors who are on probation – even those disciplined for serious offenses such as sexual assault, drug or alcohol addiction, or gross negligence. Instead, they believe patients should be responsible for finding out about bad doctors.

The board first shirked this responsibility last October when it unanimously voted down a petition by the Consumers Union Safe Patient Project that would have required all doctors on probation to notify their patients. Board members acknowledged that most patients have no idea when their doctor has been put on probation and pledged to form a task force on the issue.

When that task force held its first meeting last week, it was a half-hearted attempt to appease patient advocates. The task force outlined a public outreach campaign to teach consumers how to look up their doctors on the board’s website and some ideas for making it more user-friendly. Task force members talked about using billboards, fliers and even school PTAs to get the word out. However, they also admitted that there wasn’t much money for this awareness campaign and that they would only meet one more time before dissolving.

The task force ignored Consumers Union’s modified petition, one that would only require patient notification for doctors on probation for the most egregious offenses. Instead, board President David Serrano Sewell said that requiring notification would create too much of a burden and would hurt the doctor-patient relationship.

The medical board has also been criticized for failing to discipline doctors who fail to meet standards of care. During 2014-15, it received 8,267 complaints, but only 365 disciplinary actions were handed down, about a quarter of them mild letters of reprimand. There are now about 600 doctors on probation throughout California, yet the board appears to have more allegiance to these rogue doctors than it does to the 38 million residents of the state.

Patients have a right to know whether their doctor has been put on probation because of serious misconduct that could jeopardize their health. If the board won’t act, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature should get involved.

Marian Hollingsworth, who lives near San Diego, is a patient safety advocate with Consumers Union. She can be contacted at