The vast majority of doctors in California have clean records. But about 500 — less than half a percent — don't. They're on probation with the Medical Board of California for wrongdoing that often entails substance abuse, gross negligence, overprescribing or fondling their patients. A smattering of the cases involves poor record-keeping, while others entail criminal convictions.
Whatever the cause, there's a good chance their patients have no idea. Though the information is available online, many people don't know it's there or how to get it.
Three years ago, the Medical Board discussed whether it should require doctors to inform their patients that they were on probation and decided against it. The board members expressed discomfort with the idea and suggested that it might disrupt the doctor-patient relationship. The board put off a decision, saying that for the time being, it would do more to let people know how they could find the information themselves.
But three years later, the public is not much better informed. More than 130 Los Angeles County doctors are on probation, and it's unlikely that more than a small fraction of the affected patients know.
That's one reason why, when the Medical Board brings up the issue again Friday, it should protect patients by requiring doctors to inform them — probably when they call to schedule their appointments. Doctors already must inform the hospitals where they practice as well as their malpractice insurers. Why should a company whose stake in the matter is merely financial have rights that patients, whose health is at stake, do not?
The list changes continually. Doctors come off, others are added. Consumers are unlikely to keep up; it's unreasonable to expect that they would check the list every time they make a new appointment.
Many doctors on probation clean up their acts for good. But others don't. Those on the list are far more likely to be subject to additional disciplinary action, or lose their licenses altogether, than doctors who have clean records. In fact, 17% of doctors who were on probation in the fiscal years 2011-12 and 2012-13 faced further discipline while they were still on the list.
It's awkward, no doubt, for a doctor to inform patients when he or she is on probation. The California Medical Assn. predictably objects to notification, saying it would "put a burden on" the doctor-patient relationship. True, but that's the very point: Patients should be fully informed so that they can decide whether they want that relationship to continue.
Patients already have a right to know this information: The board agreed in 2012 that it could be vital information for them. This would simply ensure they actually get the information to which they're already entitled.