3) Candor is your friend. Undoubtedly, there are occasions when a patient complains about medical care without justification. Patients have unrealistic expectations and often fail to understand that each patient’s condition presents a unique challenge. Conversely, some complaints absolutely are legitimate. Every physician makes mistakes, and the medical board will react negatively to a physician who defends an unreasonable course of care. In fact, the medical board will view the physician’s defense of unreasonable care as evidence the mistake is not an aberration in the physician’s practice.
When confronted with one of those instances where the patient’s complaint is legitimate, we doubly recommend you confer with an attorney about your response. At a minimum, however, a physician must be able to explain:
- Why a mistake occurred;
- What steps the physician took to minimize the consequences of the mistake for the patient;
- Why the mistake represents an aberration, not a reason for continued concern; and
- What changes the physician has implemented to ensure the mistake will not reoccur.
In preparing a response to the medical board, we’ve recommended physicians take continuing education in the areas of the patients’ complaints. By taking this remedial measure voluntarily, a physician reduces the likelihood the medical board will impose it as a remedial sanction.
When we first began defending healthcare professionals before their licensing agencies, we thought we’d be spending lots of time dealing with complicated medical issues. We were wrong.
By an overwhelming proportion, the majority of disciplinary actions against physicians arise from three sources:
- Allegations of improper sexual conduct;
- Allegations of substance abuse; or
- Allegations of financial impropriety.
Physicians face the same problems that affect non-physicians—but a physician’s breach of the obligations owed to patients allows a medical board to take disciplinary action. The physician-patient relationship has an inherent disparity of power that makes patients vulnerable to a physician’s abuse of trust. For this reason, medical boards view allegations of this nature quite seriously.
The first question a physician has to ask when accused of these form of misconduct is, “Is it true?” If you are tempted, to answer, “no,” even if the real answer is “yes,” think twice. If you lie to the medical board about one of these issues, you almost certainly will lose your medical license. You will have demonstrated to the board that you not only lack judgment, but that you can’t be trusted. If it even crossed your mind to alter the medical or billing records, don’t. The medical board will probably obtain copies of those records from another source.
If the answer to the question, “Is it true?” is “yes,” the physician faces the prospect that the medical board will revoke or suspend their license. In these situations, we regularly recommend physicians embark on a course of action designed to save the medical license—even if the physician will be subject to arduous probationary terms.
We will recommend the physicians engage practice monitors, seek substance abuse counseling, and repay any wrongfully obtained money. In many states, there are specialized programs that provide mental health and addiction counseling for physicians, and these programs represent potential lifelines for physicians in crisis. Your goal is demonstrate to the medical board that you’ve seen the error of your ways and have committed to a program that will return you to good standing.
Responding to the medical board is a scary proposition. The majority of complaints are dismissed without any disciplinary action against a physician—but no physician should take a complaint lightly. Be thoughtful and candid in your response to maximize the likelihood that the medical board will dismiss the complaint. TH