Thousands of docs continue to practice despite misconduct, danger

A USA Today investigation reveals that state medical boards responsible for licensing doctors don't punish thousands of physicians who have been banned by hospitals or other medical facilities.

The article highlights the case of Greggory Phillips, M.D., who prescribed a toxic mix of medications for 44-year-old Jennifer Chaney of Texas to treat her neck pain and poor thyroid function. Chaney died as a result of the medication. Although he already faced sanctions for mismanaging medications and abusing drugs for over a decade, the Texas Medical Board issued fines, restricted his prescription powers, and put his medical license on probation.

But he still was allowed to keep practicing, according to the newspaper's investigation. Before Chaney, another woman had died in his care in 2008.

But the mishandling of Phillips is not an isolated case, according to the investigation. The article reveals:

  • From 2001 to 2011, 6,000 doctors had clinical privileges restricted or taken away but more than half were never fined or faced with a license restriction or revocation.
  • Nearly 250 of the doctors sanctioned by healthcare institutions were cited as an "immediate threat to health and safety," yet their licenses still were not restricted or taken away. Furthermore, 900 other physicians were cited for negligence, incompetence, etc. and didn't have their licenses taken away.
  • Among the nearly 100,000 doctors who made payments to resolve malpractice claims from 2001 to 2011, roughly 800 were responsible for 10 percent of all the dollars paid.

David Swankin, head of the Citizen Advocacy Center, which works to make state medical boards more effective, told USA Today that the numbers raise more than a few red flags.

"Medical boards are not like health departments that go out to see if a restaurant is clean; they're totally reactive, because they rely on these mandatory reports--and they're supposed to act on them," Swankin told the newspaper.

A study published earlier this summer in BMJ Open found the biggest reason people sue doctors is a delay or failure to diagnose disease, especially cancer, heart attacks and meningitis that kills patients. The second most-cited cause for malpractice suits was medication errors.

The USA Today investigation found that lengthy processes, bureacracy and biased peer review often lead to bad physicians continuing to practice.

"The states vary all over the lot in terms of the resources the [medical] boards have, whether they have good leadership, and whether they are regularly querying the (Data Bank)," Sidney Wolfe, a physician and founder of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, told the newspaper. "Some states do a pretty good job; a lot of them don't."

To learn more:
- read the USA Today article
- check out the BMJ Open study