South Carolina ponders openness of charges against doctors

Medical board proceedings in the state will be kept secret until the board makes a final decision.

By Damon Adams — Posted April 18, 2005

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South Carolina legislators and the state's Supreme Court will determine how much access the public will have to disciplinary cases involving physicians.

On March 1, the South Carolina Board of Medical Examiners approved a proposal to make formal charges against doctors available to the public. The Legislature must adopt the proposed changes for them to take effect. Lawmakers likely will consider the plan next year, the second half of the legislative session.

Meanwhile, on March 15 the South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments in a case in which a newspaper claimed that an administrative law court blocked public access to disciplinary actions against a doctor. The state's high court will decide if the administrative law court's proceedings on physician discipline should be open to the public.

South Carolina joins other states that have grappled with the issue of public disclosure of disciplinary cases of doctors.

Physicians and medical societies in some states have said doctors should get due process before accusations are listed publicly. They argue that patients could get the wrong impression from charges posted online before a medical board decides a case.

For example, a few years ago, some medical groups fought the Virginia Board of Medicine's proposal to list unfounded complaints against doctors on its Web site. But once disclaimers were added to the Web page, concerns faded, and most doctors became resigned to the practice.

Some South Carolina medical leaders say they don't oppose public access to physician discipline as long as the physician has been given a chance to present his or her side of the story. They say the public should know when a final decision on disciplinary action is made.

"We need to be held up to scrutiny in public, and when someone is not doing a good job, appropriate action should be taken. When there are limits placed on a physician's practice, that should be publicized," said William Hueston, MD, a family physician in Charleston and the South Carolina Academy of Family Physicians' president-elect.

Seeking more public access

The case before the South Carolina Supreme Court centers on a suit filed by the Hilton Head Island Packet newspaper.

The paper sought records involving disciplinary actions by the medical board against a cardiologist. But an administrative law court judge, who hears contested cases concerning doctor discipline, ordered the documents sealed and did not issue an order in the matter, according to court papers filed by the Island Packet.

Attorneys for the Island Packet said the public had a right to the information that the administrative law judge sealed.

"The administrative law court will have to be a lot more open for public scrutiny," said Jay Bender, an attorney for the newspaper.

Cam Lewis, an attorney for the administrative law court, could not be reached for comment.

Legislative action coming

While the decision of the state's highest court is expected before summer, physicians might have to wait longer to see how legislators address the public access issue.

Medical board proceedings currently are kept secret until the board makes a final decision concerning a complaint against a doctor. But board members in March approved proposed changes to the state's Medical Practice Act, which governs how doctors are licensed and disciplined.

If state legislators approve the new plan, the board would make it publicly known when formal charges are issued against a doctor. No details of the investigation would be released until the board takes final action.

But legislative approval probably won't come until next year during the second half of the legislative session, board officials said.

The South Carolina Medical Assn. has opposed disclosing complaints against doctors on the board's Web site because the cases ultimately could be judged unmerited.

"Just because a complaint has been filed, it would be too premature to release information about a complaint until a finding has been made based on the facts," said association President John P. Evans, MD, a hand surgeon in Greenville, S.C.

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