Medicolegal Issues

Variable Rate


Are states doing enough to discipline problem doctors? The sensitive question has flared again with the release of an annual report by Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

The report analyzed statistics released by the Federation of State Medical Boards on serious disciplinary actions taken by the boards of all 50 states and the District of Columbia in 2009. Those actions include revocations, surrenders, suspensions, and probations or restrictions. Public Citizen used a three-year average (2007 to 2009) to arrive at its rate of actions per 1,000 physicians licensed in each state.

For the fourth year in a row, Alaska had the most actions, 7.89 per 1,000 doctors. Meanwhile, Minnesota had the fewest actions (1.07 per 1,000 doctors) for the second year running. For the record, the numbers aren’t broken down by specialty (see Table 1, p. 5).

So what does it all mean? Do Alaska’s doctors really require more punitive measures than those in other states, or is the state board simply more vigilant? Are Minnesota doctors that much better, or is that state failing in its duty to provide adequate oversight? Is such a ranking system even warranted?

Nearly everyone agrees on the importance of protecting the public and the integrity of the medical profession. But the aggressive jousting over what the new numbers do or do not mean suggests just how difficult it can be to come up with a metric for medical accountability that everyone agrees is both fair and reliable.

Sidney Wolfe, MD, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and the lead author of the new report, dismisses the notion that Minnesota’s doctors are so good that they don’t require as many disciplinary actions. “There is not a shred of evidence for that,” he says. Instead, he calls out what he views as an ineffective board.

In turn, Robert Leach, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice, dismisses the significance of the report’s findings. “It’s a fair ranking the way their formula applies. It’s the formula we disagree with,” he says. “It’s fairly simplistic and indicative of nothing.”

And Lisa Robin, senior vice president for advocacy and member services at the Federation of State Medical Boards, says the federation doesn’t even encourage rankings because of the variable laws and sanctions from state to state. “It doesn’t give you a true picture of what boards do, to rank them,” she says.

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A Row Over Rankings

Minnesota’s Leach has a detailed list of grievances against the report. But his biggest beef is with the fact that it ranks medical boards on the number of serious disciplinary actions per 1,000 physicians licensed by the state. “The more precise number should be the number of licensed physicians who are actually practicing in the state,” he says.

From 2008 to 2009, for example, more than 19,000 physicians were licensed in Minnesota. Yet Leach says that only a little more than 14,000 were actually practicing within the state, which he describes as a large exporter of trained doctors. “So we had 5,000 physicians who weren’t even practicing here that were counted against our one disciplinary action per thousand physicians,” he says.

Public Citizen, he says, also doesn’t recognize other interventions, such as Minnesota’s “agreements for corrective action,” that normally include training or remedial coursework for doctors with an identified weakness in subject areas such as prescribing or chronic-pain management. “Not every doctor needs to be hit over the head with a hammer of serious disciplinary action to address a problem,” Leach says.

And then there’s the sticky matter of peer review. In Minnesota, “virtually every physician now practicing works for a large health plan or a facility,” he says. “We have virtually no solo practice or isolated practice in Minnesota, and those are the physicians who get in trouble: the ones who don’t have the advantage of periodic peer review, who don’t have the advantage of adequate supervision to help keep them out of trouble.”

Doctors like those in Alaska? “You always see Alaska is rated real high,” Leach says. “You have a bunch of people out there practicing in the wilderness, out in solo practice. Physicians need to have that ability to have peer review, to be able to address problem cases with their colleagues. In Minnesota, a lot of these facilities and health plans address these problems at the practice level before they even reach the board.”

A Call To Action

Dr. Wolfe isn’t buying the notion that Minnesota doctors require less formal discipline while their colleagues in Alaska need more. Whenever other low-ranking states have provided sufficient funding, replaced ineffective leadership, granted more independence, and met the other conditions necessary for a better medical board, he notes, their rate of disciplinary actions often “rockets up.”

The medical boards of North Carolina and Washington, D.C., have risen dramatically in the rankings in recent years, and Dr. Wolfe cites effective intervention in both cases. In formerly low-ranking Arizona, he says, similar corrective action in the late 1990s led to a tripling of the rate of serious disciplinary action within three years. “That’s obviously not a period of time that’s long enough to be explained by some inward migration of bad doctors or outward migration of good doctors,” he says. “It’s because the board started functioning better.”

Meanwhile, boards in South Carolina and Massachusetts have slumped in the ratings—a decline he attributes to the loss of leadership and funds.

“One area I can agree with Dr. Wolfe on is that medical boards need resources; they need adequate structure, resources, and authority to do their job and be able to protect the public,” says Robin, of the Federation of State Medical Boards. “If they’re in a big umbrella agency and they’re just one of many and share their pool of investigators with everyone, as you can imagine, that’s probably not as efficient.”

Hospitals also share in the blame, according to a separate Public Citizen report released last year that cites a chronic underreporting of doctor misconduct or incompetence to the National Practitioner Data Bank by hospitals. Robin agrees that more diligence is needed to ensure that medical boards have the information they need to properly do their jobs. As one of her board members told her, “They can’t gain information by osmosis.”

Hospitalists, however, might be well suited for addressing the underreporting issue. HM is in a “really good position to observe behavior that needs to be brought to the attention of hospital medical staff,” Dr. Wolfe says.

He recommends that one or more hospitalists should sit on each hospital’s medical peer review committee, where they can put their expertise to good use. “Hospitalists really need to get more active in this,” he says. “It’s for the betterment of the patients in the hospital, it’s for the betterment for the reputation of the hospital and the medical staff.” TH

Bryn Nelson is a freelance medical writer based in Seattle.

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