California lags behind most states in disciplining doctors, report finds


California’s medical board is less likely than those in other states to revoke doctors’ licenses or take other serious disciplinary action, according to a consumer advocate’s report released this week.

California ranked 41st among boards in all 50 states and the District of Columbia in taking serious disciplinary action against doctors last year, according to the report released Monday by Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer group.

The report, based on Federation of State Medical Boards figures, defined serious discipline as license revocations, surrenders, suspensions and probation or restrictions.

California’s board took 2.36 such disciplinary actions per 1,000 doctors last year, lower than the national rate of 3.05 disciplinary actions per 1,000 doctors, the report showed. The national rate last year was 18% lower than the peak rate in 2004 of 3.72 per 1,000 doctors.

“There is considerable evidence that most boards are under-disciplining physicians,” researchers wrote. “. . . Most states are not living up to their obligations to protect patients from doctors who are practicing medicine in a substandard manner.”

A spokeswoman for California’s board, Candis Cohen, defended its record of disciplining problem doctors. She said the report failed to tally lower-level discipline, such as citations, fines and letters of concern. She said the report also failed to account for differing standards that state boards use for sustaining allegations against doctors. She also said California standards are tough, and limit the board’s ability to issue serious discipline.

Despite this, Cohen said, “We’re satisfied that we’re maintaining our high level of public protection.”

Disciplinary actions against California doctors could start to increase later this year, however, because of a new board requirement.

Beginning June 27, all of the state’s 125,000 physicians must provide notices or post signs stating the following: “Notice to consumers, medical doctors are licensed and regulated by the Medical Board of California, (800) 633-2322,”

The regulations and a sample notice are posted on the board’s website.

“People are unaware of our existence,” Cohen said. “It’s not just about where to go to complain, but where to go for more information.”

In the last fiscal year, the board received a total of 6,437 complaints, including 4,025 from patients, their families and other members of the public, she said.

California Medical Assn. officials have criticized the rule as an effort to boost complaints.

Dr. Theodore Mazer, an association trustee based in San Diego, said if the medical board really wanted to raise public awareness, it should have mounted a public education campaign, not imposed new regulations on doctors. “The intent is to turn my patients into police and whistle-blowers,” Mazer said. “It requires us to start out a relationship by saying ‘If you don’t like me, here’s how to report me.’ ”