When the California Medical Board puts doctors on probation for drug use, negligence, sexual harassment or other violations, it requires them to inform the hospitals where they practice and their malpractice insurers. Yet they are not required to inform the people most likely to be harmed if their misdeeds or mistakes continue — patients.
The state medical board seems intent on keeping it this way, leaving the burden on patients to find out for themselves the licensing status of their doctors. The board created a Patient Notification Task Force last year to study this issue in response to a petition from Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, which asked that doctors be required to inform patients if they are on probation, possibly at the time an appointment is made. But at the task force's first meeting last month, it didn't even discuss this idea. Nor did it take up an amended proposal by Consumers Union, which would apply the notification requirement only to the small number of doctors with serious violations such as sexual misconduct and drug abuse.
Patients have a legal right to this information, so that's not at issue. The sticking point is whether physicians should have to reach out to patients or the other way around. So far, the board has favored the latter approach, focusing on improvements to its website that make it easier for people to research their physicians' disciplinary records and keep track of their licensing status.
While this is certainly a benefit to consumers, it's no substitute for active notification. No matter how snazzy and functional the website may be, it's hard to imagine that even a significant fraction of Californians will head to www.mbc.ca.gov every time they have a doctor's appointment — especially elderly people, who are less likely to use a computer or have Internet access.
Medical board officials insist that the task force hasn't finished its work and that patient notification is still on the table. But given the board's history of rejecting similar proposals, we're skeptical that it will get a fair consideration at its next meeting in May.
Board President David Serrano Sewell certainly seems to have his mind made up. "We decided on balance not to pursue what was requested" by Consumers Union, Sewell said in at the board's meeting in January. He cited concerns about how such notification would be a "burden," clog up the administrative review process and impact the physician-patient relationship. That sounds an awful lot like a brush off.
If the medical board is unwilling to force wrongdoing doctors to inform their patients, then the state Legislature ought to step in. The inconvenience and discomfort of a small percentage of physicians must not trump what's in the best interest of patients.