State medical boards are 'under-disciplining' doctors, watchdog group finds

Overall, the rate at which states took serious disciplinary actions against doctors--including revocations, surrenders, suspensions and probation/restrictions--rose slightly in 2009. Still, that number was 18 percent lower than its peak five years ago, according to an annual ranking of state medical boards by Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.

In particular, Minnesota was the worst state when it came to disciplining doctors and, along with Maryland, South Carolina and Wisconsin, has consistently been among the worst 10 states for each of the last seven rankings. For the first time since Public Citizen began issuing its state medical board rankings, Massachusetts has fallen into the bottom 10. California's rate of discipline (11th worst) has also dropped considerably since the 2001 to 2003 period, when it was ranked 22nd.

"There is considerable evidence that most boards are under-disciplining physicians," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. "Most states are not living up to their obligations to protect patients from doctors who are practicing medicine in a substandard manner."

The best states when it comes to doctor discipline, in order, are Alaska, North Dakota, Kentucky, Ohio, Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico and Hawaii. Hawaii, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Illinois and Maine showed the most improvement from the 2001 to 2003 period.

The annual rankings are based on the Federation of State Medical Boards' data on the number of serious disciplinary actions taken against doctors from 2007 to 2009. Public Citizen calculated the rate of serious disciplinary actions per 1,000 doctors in each state for each of these three years, then averaged the rates over the past three years to establish the state's rank.

According to the report, the most effective medical boards tend to be adequately funded and staffed, committed to proactive investigations, have excellent leadership, work independently from state medical societies and government and use a "reasonable legal framework" for disciplining doctors.

To learn more:
- read Public Citizen's press release