Iowa doctor fights making charges public

The state's medical board has been to court twice in the past 12 months over public disclosure of allegations against physicians.

By Damon Adams — Posted Sept. 12, 2005

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A physician is fighting the Iowa Board of Medical Examiners in court, claiming that the board should not publicize charges against him.

The Iowa physician, identified in court documents as "John Doe, MD," has asked a Polk County judge to seal the board's charges against him, keeping the board from publicizing them. Michael Sellers, the doctor's attorney, said a hearing had been set for Sept. 21.

Sellers and medical leaders said the case could impact what information is made public in Iowa when a physician faces charges from the board. "Sometimes, when physicians first find out there has been a complaint is when they read about it in the paper," Sellers said.

This is the second time in a year that the medical board has found itself in court over public disclosure of allegations against physicians.

Sellers said a complaint had been made against John Doe, MD, by another physician who treated three of the anonymous doctor's patients. He said his client denies the allegations, which he would not specify. The board would not discuss details of the case, citing the litigation.

Sellers said charges against John Doe, MD, should not be made public because state law calls for only final board decisions to be public.

The other case against the board involved family physician Kirk M. Smith, MD, who applied for an Iowa medical license in 2001. Without holding a hearing, the board denied his request for a license, citing concerns about allegations that he improperly touched patients while in Missouri.

Sellers, who is Dr. Smith's attorney, said the allegations were unsubstantiated. Dr. Smith requested a hearing and was issued a restricted license that requires him to have a female chaperone present when he treats a female patient. He asked the board to remove the pre-hearing denial of his license from its Web site, but the board would not.

In November 2004, Polk County District Judge Joel D. Novak ruled that only information from a final decision by the board should be made public. The pre-hearing denial has been taken off the board's Web site. The board has appealed.

Making charges public

Ann E. Mowery, PhD, the board's executive director, said the board keeps complaints against doctors confidential. When the board makes formal charges, those charges are made public just as other licensing boards do in the state. "It's just standard business," she said.

Jeanine Freeman, senior vice president of legal affairs for the Iowa Medical Society, said state law doesn't say whether formal charges should be public or not. "The law is not specific on that point," she said.

In 1995, Sellers fought the board to keep charges against several doctors sealed until the board made final decisions on their cases. But a judge said the charges should be public.

Sellers said the state had since expanded the board's authority to issue temporary suspensions against physicians, which Sellers said make public notice of charges unnecessary.

In 1995, the medical society said the public should know the doctor's name and a brief description of the charges, Freeman said. The society has not taken a stance on the John Doe, MD, case and has not decided if it will reverse its previous position, she said.

Most state medical boards do not make complaints and accusations public, according to data from the Federation of State Medical Boards. But most do publicize formal board actions taken against physicians.

In June, South Carolina legislators passed a new law requiring the South Carolina Board of Medical Examiners to make it publicly known when a formal complaint of misconduct is filed against a physician.

Patient records and identities and allegations dealing with a doctor's physical or mental incapacity are kept confidential. The new law also requires that the name of the complainant be provided to the doctor who is the subject of the complaint.

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Case at a glance

John Doe, MD, v. Iowa Board of Medical Examiners

Venue: Polk County (Iowa) District Court
At issue: Whether the Iowa Board of Medical Examiners can make public the charges brought against a physician.
Impact: The doctor's attorney said the case could affect what information is made public in Iowa when a physician faces charges from the board.

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