Are state medical boards doing enough to protect patients?

The Wisconsin state medical board is facing criticism that the state fails to discipline doctors who make mistakes, according to a special report by the Wisconsin State Journal.

Wisconsin has one of the lowest rates of physician discipline, with the other low discipline states being Minnesota, South Carolina, Massachusetts and Connecticut, according to Public Citizen data analyzed by the Wisconsin State Journal. Wisconsin has 1.9 actions per 1,000 physicians.

Although the low rate could signal better care in the state, as the board noted, the watchdog group says it's more likely due to poor disciplinary action. Doctors who make mistakes often don't face serious consequences. More than half of 218 doctors disciplined from 2010 to 2012 only got reprimands. More than 50 of those cases involved patient harm or death, the newspaper noted.

Public Citizen has long argued the lax state medical boards allow incompetent or dangerous doctors to fly under the radar. Although the state medical board follows up on complaints, it does not conduct its own investigations, according to state statutes. If validated, the complaints go on the physician's record but do not affect his or her practice. Instead, physicians routinely undergo reprimands, fines and re-education.

Families of the affected patients said it's not enough and that the punishment doesn't fit the crime.

However, the state Supreme Court ruled the medical board is supposed to protect the public, deter wrongdoing and rehabilitate doctors--not punish them.

In addition, the state medical board said it lacks the resources to revoke or suspend medical licenses more strongly, according to Sheldon Wasserman, board chairman of the State Medical Examining Board. "That comes at a cost. We don't have the resources."

The report questions the purpose of state medical boards at all.

"It's a dysfunctional process," Dan Rottier, a medical malpractice attorney from Madison, said about Wisconsin's medical board. "We tell people never to expect them to do anything."

Although the Federation of State Medical Boards in May noted that state medical boards punished 6.8 percent more dangerous doctors in 2011, with increased disciplinary actions, Public Citizen said state medical boards still are falling short on protecting patients from inferior care, partly because of shrinking state budgets.

For more information:
- see the Wisconsin State Journal article, map data on actions and chart of reprimanded physicians

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