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Patients deserve to know if their doctors are on probation

Patients deserve to know if their doctors are on probation
A patient's vital signs are displayed while under the care of medical staff. (Getty Images)

Dr. Van H. Vu was put on probation in 2015 by the California Medical Board after being accused of gross negligence in the cases of two patients who fatally overdosed. If you were about to go into Vu's pain management clinic for treatment, you'd be pretty interested in that information, wouldn't you? Just as you'd want to know if your surgeon had been put on probation for performing an operation under the influence of drugs or if your daughter's pediatrician had been put on probation for sexually abusing patients.

But in California, you probably wouldn't know. That's because although California requires physicians who are placed on probation to inform their insurance companies and the hospitals and clinics where they practice, they don't have to tell the people who may be harmed the most — their patients.

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This is outrageous. People have a right to know if their doctor is on probation for serious misconduct. Probation only results when investigations have turned up evidence of misconduct. Yet efforts to require physicians to inform their patients that they have been placed on probation — and why — have gone nowhere. The medical board has refused to force them to, and last year a bill by state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) to bypass the board and put those requirements into law was blocked after intense lobbying by physicians' associations. Hill is back with the proposal again year, and it faces opposition once again.

The California Medical Assn. and other opponents argue that forcing doctors to tell patients upfront about their probationary status would interfere with patient care.

Yes, it probably would. But if a doctor is afraid of telling patients about why he is on probation, perhaps there's good reason. Perhaps it is so serious a violation that patients would choose to find another doctor. The doctor-patient relationship is intimate and profound and requires trust on both sides.

Besides, this information isn't secret. It's available to patients — if they know where to look. But most people wouldn't even think of searching for their doctor on the Medical Board's website before a visit. Understandably, since most doctors aren't on probation, and most patients don't even know that such information is available.

At any given time, 500 to 600 of the state's 140,000 licensed physicians are on probation with the medical board. But it takes only one bad doctor to hurt many people. Take the case of Larry Nassar, the former physician to the USA Gymnastics national team, who was convicted of sexually abusing girls in his care. Or George Tyndall, the USC gynecologist accused, among other things, of conducting inappropriate pelvic exams on young students. If we've learned nothing else from the #MeToo movement, it is that secrecy around misconduct allows perpetrators to continue hurting people.

SB 1448, the Patient's Right to Know Act, is up for a key committee vote this week, and legislators should endorse it.

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