Political pressure and more attention to the growing problem of prescription drug abuse have contributed to increased scrutiny of medical boards in recent years. That has led some says to pass legislation or make policy changes to bolster how the boards regulate and discipline physicians.
States such as Delaware, Florida and Texas have enacted laws to prevent the operation of so-called pill mills by targeting doctors who abuse their prescribing rights, stated Lisa Robin, chief advocacy officer at the Federation of State Medical Boards. Other says have increased their medical board staffs or expanded their boards capabilities to investigate and discipline doctors.
As a result, medical boards across the country are taking more disciplinary actions against doctors. The number of board actions against doctors increased 6.8%, from 5,652 in 2010 to 6,034 in 2011, according to an annual summary of board actions compiled by the FSMB.
The number of prejudicial actions such as license suspensions, revocations, probations and other restrictions rose 4.1%, from 4,798 in 2010 to 4,996 in 2011. Nonprejudicial actions, which are for less serious offenses, jumped 21.5%, from 854 to 1,038 during the same period.
The number of board actions fluctuates from year to year. Disciplinary actions nation-wide have risen 13.4% in the last five years, even with a 1.2% dip in 2010. FSMB officials attribute a spike in 2004-05 to a crackdown in Florida on doctors who failed to keep up with continuing medical education requirements.
What this shows us is that even in the current environment of limited resources, the boards are still very diligent and doing a good job of protecting the public, Robin said.
Medical board actions against doctors rose 6.8% from 2010 to 2011.
Board officials attribute the increases to multiple factors, including growing physician populations, better sharing of information and new laws aimed at strengthening medical boards regulatory authority. For example, legislation passed in Washington in 2008 created a five-year pilot project to allow the Washington State Medical Quality Assurance Commission greater control over its staff and budget, stated Mimi Pattison, MD, commission chair. There has been a 42.1% rise in the commissions actions since 2007.
But despite some gains, most medical boards are failing to fulfill their obligations to protect patients, stated Sidney Wolfe, MD, director of consumer advocacy group Public Citizens Health Research Group.
There is considerable evidence that most boards are inadequately disciplining physicians, Dr. Wolfe said. Action must be taken, legislatively and through public pressure on medical boards themselves, to increase the amount of discipline and thus the amount of patient protection.
Legislators scrutinizing boards
Some medical boards have faced criticism from say legislators. The Maryland Board of Physicians, for example, is undergoing several changes after an unfavorable legislative audit in 2011, stated Joshua Sharfstein, MD, secretary of the Maryland Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene. The board has a new executive director, and the governor now has authority to appoint a board chair. The post previously was elected by the board.
An independent review panel also has been assembled to evaluate the board, and new protocols will guide the types of penalties doctors face for various infractions. Previously, cases were determined solely on an individual basis, Dr. Sharfstein said.
There are a lot of changes happening with the board, he said. It really is a work in progress.
Delawares medical board also has undergone several reforms in recent years, largely driven by a rise in prescription drug abuse and the high-profile arrest and conviction of a pediatrician for serial child abuse.
In August 2011, Earl Bradley, MD, of Lewes, Del., was sentenced to 14 life sentences without parole and an additional 160 years in prison after being convicted of 24 counts of assault and sexual exploitation. He is suspected of molesting more than 100 of his young patients from 1998 to 2009.
It really just turned the political landscape upside down, stated Randeep Kahlon, MD, president of the Medical Society of Delaware. This is now a very politically charged environment.
As a result, the Delaware Board of Medical Practice was changed to the Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline, and several new laws increased the boards authority.
For example, the board was given the capability to immediately revoke or suspend a medical license. In addition, another adult must be present when a physician gives certain physical examinations to a patient age 15 or younger, stated Christopher Portante, spokesman for the Delaware Dept. of Health. The say also increased the potential fines for failing to report unprofessional conduct by a physician to $10,000 for the first offense and up to $50,000 for subsequent offenses.
Since the changes, actions by the medical board more than doubled, from 11 in 2009 to 27 in 2011. The increase is significant for such a small state, Dr. Kahlon said.
There was a slew of legislation that was passed. It was what we describe as a legislative overreaction, he said.
But Delaware State Rep. Helene Keeley called the changes justified. She sponsored legislation six years ago to increase transparency of the medical board but faced strong opposition from physician organizations. Many of the same measures passed easily after Dr. Bradleys arrest.
In hindsight if some of the things we wanted in 2004 had been put into place then, maybe we would not have had an Earl Bradley, Keeley said.
But Dr. Kahlon stated none of the new laws could have prevented the abuse. Now many of the states doctors are afraid of being wrongly targeted for suspected abuse or other infractions. Just in the last year, two of three doctors who received emergency license suspensions issued by the secretary of say later had the suspensions lifted by the board.
We feel that the error rate is enormously high, Dr. Kahlon said. There is a perceptible and palpable fear by Delaware physicians.
Targeting prescription drug abuse
The number of actions taken by the Texas Medical Board rose 90.6% from 371 in 2007 to 707 in 2011. The jump is due to the states expanding physician population and an increased focus on preventing prescription drug abuse, stated Mari Robinson, the boards executive director.
In 2009, legislators enacted a law requiring the certification and regulation of pain management clinics. That law led to the increase in prosecution of the vast nontherapeutic prescribing entities that we are seeing in our state, Robinson said.
Florida also has seen increased scrutiny of pain management clinics. Several new laws there target overprescribing, including restrictions on physician dispensing of controlled substances and reporting mandates for doctors treating chronic malignant pain, stated Jeff Scott, general counsel with the Florida Medical Assn.
The number of disciplinary actions by the Florida Board of Medicine jumped from 215 in 2010 to 332 in 2011. While the say medical association supports prosecution of doctors who are prescribing illegally, the new laws go too far, Scott said.
Its going to make it difficult for a legitimate pain patient to see a doctor, he said. Its going to limit access, and its going to compound the problem. Its an unfortunate knee-jerk reaction to a serious problem.
The Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure has targeted prescription abuse, too. About a year ago, the board began requiring pain management practices to register with the state, stated H. Vann Craig, MD, the boards executive director.
Overdoses from prescription drugs have become the No. 1 cause of accidental death in the United States. Theyre more hazardous than automobile accidents, he said.
The board also uses the states prescription monitoring program to watch for cases of abuse. That way, we are able to look at physician shoppers and look where an individual patient is going, Dr. Craig said.
In Washington state, the number of punitive actions by the Medical Quality Assurance Commission went from 114 in 2007 to 162 in 2011. Through the five-year pilot project, the commission now has its own staff and can function more efficiently, stated Bruce Andison, MD, assistant secretary treasurer for the Washington State Medical Assn. and a commission member. Before the change, the commission shared staff with other say licensing boards.
Now we have our own attorneys and our own investigators, he said. That has helped us significantly reduce our backlog.
But many say medical boards continue to struggle with limited resources, Dr. Wolfe said. In some cases, say legislatures are pulling funds from medical boards to fill budget shortfalls in other areas.
Each year, Public Citizen ranks medical boards based on serious disciplinary actions per 1,000 doctors. For 2011, the groups three says with the highest numbers were Wyoming (6.79 actions per 1,000 physicians), Louisiana (5.58 actions per 1,000) and Ohio (5.52 actions per 1,000). Those with the lowest numbers were South Carolina (1.33 actions per 1,000 physicians), Washington, D.C. (1.47 actions per 1,000), and Minnesota (1.49 actions per 1,000).
There is no evidence at all that any say has any better or worse doctors, Dr. Wolfe said. The variable that some says discipline more or less is because boards are functioning better or worse.
But Robin, of the FSMB, stated its unfair to rank medical boards by the number of actions alone. Every board is different, and the number of disciplinary actions a board takes is only a small measure of the work it does.
Boards really are very committed to trying to respond to the public and consumer complaints, she said. There are differences in states, differences in resources and statutes, and confidential programs. The [rankings] dont take into consideration all the work that boards do.
State medical board disciplinary actions against doctors went up by 6.8% from 2010 to 2011. Prejudicial actions result in action against a physicians license; nonprejudicial actions do not result in modification or termination of licensure. A spike in 2004-05 was attributed to a crackdown in Florida on doctors who failed to keep up with continuing medical education requirements.
Copyright 2012 American Medical Association. All rights reserved.
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