Healthcare News & Insights

Why do bad doctors go unpunished?

What kind of discipline do doctors face when they commit serious violations of patient safety? In many cases, nothing at all.

That’s what Public Citizen discovered after analyzing records from the National Practitioner Data Bank Public Use File for 1990-2009. The research found that of more than 10,000 physicians in the file who had at least one revocation or restriction of their clinical privileges, 45% also had one or more state licensing actions — which means 55% of the docs didn’t.

In one of the states least likely to take disciplinary action, California, the group found that the state medical board had failed to discipline about half of the doctors who had been disciplined by their own hospitals or health organizations between September 1990 and December 2009. That’s more than 700 doctors — most disturbingly, 102 of those doctors had been deemed by their peers as an “immediate threat” to patient health or safety.

Typical actions that landed physicians in the database were alcohol and substance abuse, providing substandard care, wrong diagnoses and leaving equipment in surgical patients.

Yet the state medical board didn’t act.

Since the initial report this spring, the state medical board hasn’t picked up the pace, and Public Citizen sent a letter to the governor outlining both the slow action against potentially dangerous docs and the state’s alarming recent decline in enforcing medical standards.

While these complaints are specific to California, it’s hardly the only state where malpractice is dealt with something less than haste. The real question is why some states seem to make it a practice to do little more than wink at physicians’ serious missteps.

Do physicians get a free pass when it comes to unprofessional behavior? Or is it merely that the process moves slowly? Share your thoughts in the comments.



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  1. Most definitely physicians seem to more often than not receive a “get out of jail free” card when it comes to disciplinary actions. I feel it is a cultural thing that, when physicians misbehave, states feel that punishing them would essentially drive them to other states to practice. This is not to mention the political clout that many physicians hold in state government(s). In essence, even a dangerous physician is considered “more valuable alive than dead.” Its almost as if they have diplomatic immunity.