There are a few pieces of mail that bring an instant feeling of dread—an audit letter from the IRS, a credit card bill after a Las Vegas vacation, and a letter from the medical board. We have no good solutions for the first two pieces of correspondence, but we have a few suggestions when communicating with the medical board.
1) Understand the medical board’s purpose. Every state regulates the practice of medicine for the same reason: Medicine requires highly specialized knowledge, and the average patient does not have the knowledge or experience to determine which physicians are qualified to practice.
Think of the harm that could result if incompetent physicians could practice medicine without oversight. Even worse, think of the harm that could result if non-physicians could provide medical services without proper education and training. That’s why, in every state, the legislatures have passed laws to regulate and control the practice of medicine so people can be properly protected against the unauthorized, unqualified, and improper practice of medicine. Almost everyone agrees regulation of this nature serves a legitimate public purpose.
Consequently, whenever a physician deals with a medical board, they are best served by remembering that the medical board exists to protect the public from the unauthorized, unqualified and improper practice of medicine. The physician’s ultimate goal is to reassure that medical board that their practice is authorized, well-grounded in medicine, and within the standards of professional care. Even if the patient has complained because of a questionable motive, such as attempting to gain an advantage in a billing dispute, a physician cannot use the patient’s motive as grounds for defending poor medical care. Medical boards often distrust physicians who try to shift the focus from the adequacy of their medical care to a patient’s shortcomings.
2) Do I need a lawyer? In most states, the medical board will ask a physician to respond to every patient complaint—even if the complaint is outlandish. Rather than judging the complaint when it arrives, the medical board is more interested in assessing the physician’s response to the complaint. An unhappy patient may lack the acumen to explain the course of treatment and the specifics of their condition, so the medical board relies upon the physician to describe their conduct and the course of care.
Unless the patient’s complaint is in the category of “the doctor placed transmitters in my brain and now the aliens won’t leave me alone,” we always recommend a physician review the complaint and the proposed response with an attorney. In every state, there are attorneys who specialize in representing physicians before medical boards.
Because they’ve dealt with the medical board in many cases throughout a number of years, these attorneys have a good idea of what the medical board expects to see in a response, and, more importantly, what the medical board does not want to see in a response. Investing in an attorney’s services at the outset is money well spent.
Far too often, we see physicians who tried to save a couple of hundred dollars by responding to the medical board, but their response was ineffective. The physician is then faced with spending several thousand dollars defending a disciplinary proceeding. Even worse, if the physician has made a sufficiently serious mistake in the initial response, the physician is going to be stuck with that mistake, severely limiting the attorney’s ability to defend the disciplinary proceeding. Some medical malpractice insurers reimburse physicians for attorney’s fees incurred in responding to a medical board complaint, so check your policy.