Nearly 1 in 5 Americans have experienced physician misconduct with most incidents going unreported, survey finds

A physician's stethoscope
A new survey finds that while many Americans say they have experienced physician misconduct, relatively few report the misconduct or file a complaint. (Getty/millionsjoker)

Nearly one in five Americans say they have had an interaction with a physician who they believe was acting unethically, unprofessionally or providing substandard care, according to a new survey.

While 18% of people said they have experienced physician misconduct, only one-third of them (33%) reported the behavior or filed a complaint, according to the survey results (PDF) released by the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB).

RELATED: Industry Voices—New California law requires doctors to disclose misconduct to patients: 6 steps for physicians

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The Federation commissioned the survey to measure the prevalence of physician misconduct and public awareness of the work of state medical boards, which are responsible for licensing and disciplining physicians.

The online survey conducted by The Harris Poll of more than 2,000 U.S. adults also found among those who did file a complaint about physician misconduct, only 34% took their complaint to a state medical board.

Nearly seven in 10 Americans (69%) did not know that a state medical board is the best resource to contact with a complaint about a physician’s competence or conduct, the survey found.

RELATED: First-of-its-kind law requires California doctors to disclose sexual misconduct to patients

“The results of The Harris Poll survey show that physician misconduct is being underreported, and a majority of Americans do not know where to file a complaint against a physician,” Humayun Chaudhry, D.O., FSMB President and CEO, said in a statement.

The survey results present an opportunity to educate patients about the role state medical boards play in such cases and ensure that if a patient is mistreated or harmed by a physician they know to report the incident to their medical board, Chaudhry said.

RELATED: When sexual misconduct charges against doctors make headlines, organizations need to react quickly

Other findings from the survey included:

  • Of the 2,018 adults surveyed, 409 said they have experienced an interaction with a physician who they believed was acting unethically, unprofessionally or providing substandard care, and only 128 filed a complaint or reported the interaction.
     
  • Women are twice as likely as men to have experienced physician misconduct (24% vs. 12%)
     
  •  Among those who have experienced physician misconduct, a larger portion of men than women (41% vs. 30%) reported the physician misconduct
     
  • Less than three in 10 Americans (27%) say they know how to find out if a physician has ever received disciplinary action against their medical license
     
  • 51% of Americans do not know that state medical boards are responsible for the licensing and regulating of physicians in the United States

Concerns about physician misconduct and the need to protect patients prompted lawmakers in California to pass a new law that will require physicians to tell patients if the state medical board has placed them on probation for sexual misconduct or other wrongdoing. The law, the first of its kind in the United States, requires doctors to report activities under the Patient’s Right to Know Act, including sexual misconduct, drug misuse that has harmed or could harm patients, a criminal conviction involving harm to patients and inappropriate prescribing.

The spotlight has been turned on major misconduct cases in the  #MeToo era with cases such as USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar and USC’s gynecologist George Tyndall capturing national headlines.

“The FSMB believes it is essential to create a safe environment for reporting, so patients feel comfortable coming forward to boards, while also empowering every member of a healthcare team to exercise their duty to report misconduct as well,” Chaudry said.

RELATED: Olympic gymnasts abused by doctor back California bill to require physician disclosures for wrongdoing

One step the FSMB, the national non-profit that represents all the medical boards in the U.S., has taken to increase public awareness about the role of state medical boards is to expand its free physician search tool, DocInfo.org. The new DocInfo emphasizes the importance of reporting incidents of physician misconduct to state medical boards and explains when, how and where to file a complaint.

The tool also provides professional background information on every licensed doctor in the United States, including where they attended medical school, in which states they are licensed to practice, their medical specialty and whether they have ever been disciplined by a state medical board, including the date and type of disciplinary action taken.

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