The state Medical Board on Friday agreed to set up a task force and called for more public outreach but stopped short of requiring doctors on probation to notify their patients as requested by a nationwide consumer advocacy group.
Meeting in San Diego, the board unanimously denied the petition from the Consumers Union Safe Patient Project, saying that it was overly broad and could hurt the doctor-patient relationship in instances in which physicians are on probation for minor violations.
The decision came after notification advocates cited instances of drug abuse, sexual abuse and other severe malfeasance that they contend represent the bulk of physician probation cases. Board members said they believe there is a way to bring greater light to serious offenders while sparing those who get singled-out for less harmful actions such as poor record-keeping or failure to pay child support.
They agreed to create a new task force that will study the issue more deeply, gathering complete statistics on how well the probation system works and how common severe violations are. They pledged not to let the matter drop off their agenda.
"There will be something that will come out of this," board member Barbara Yaroslavsky said. "It might not be everything, but it will be something."
A survey by the Medical Board's staff found no states that require physicians to disclose to their patients if they are placed on probation.
That does not mean that the information is not available, however. In California, anyone can type their doctor's name into the board's online licensing website and see if probation or other more severe forms of punishment have been ordered.
But, while the information — including detailed documents describing the terms of probation — is universally available, patient safety groups argue that few know to look them up.
Lisa McGiffert, the safe patient program's director, noted that this information gap does not exist for hospitals and malpractice insurance companies, both which must be automatically notified under state law.
"Only patients, who we would argue are the ones who need it most, are left in the dark," McGiffert said.
There are a few instances in which notification is required, and the board already has discretion to require doctors to tell patients about their transgressions on a case-by-case basis. However, the union's petition would have made that requirement universal.
The union's proposal called for patients to be notified if their doctor is on probation when they first make an appointment over the phone. Before being seen, patients would have had to sign a document indicating they had been informed, and that document would have to include a paragraph that describes why probation was ordered.
Doctors would also have had to log the notifications for the entirety of their probationary period and make that log available to the board for inspection on demand.
Dr. Ronald Lewis, a board member from Rancho Mirage, called the proposal "too proscriptive" and said he thought a more nuanced approach was possible with some additional work.
"We need to step back and let the committee process try to answer these questions," Lewis said.
Sisson writes for the San Diego Union Tribune