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.