Group calls physician punishment too light

Some organizations doubt the study is an accurate reflection of board discipline.

By — Posted Oct. 2, 2006

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A California emergency physician is still licensed after being convicted of possession of cocaine and failing to revive a girlfriend who overdosed.

In New Jersey, a general surgeon received a fine and community service after a conviction for giving false medical reports on AIDS test results to a federal agency.

These and other physicians who commit crimes get light punishment from state medical boards and federal agencies, allowing some to continue to practice medicine and jeopardize patient safety, a new Public Citizen study said.

Insurance fraud and prescribing violations were the most common criminal behaviors that resulted in physician discipline between 1990 and 1999, according to researchers.

"There was a substantial amount of doctors who had criminal convictions who got off light," said Paul Jung, MD, MPH, lead author of the study in Health Matrix, a law journal of Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland.

Dr. Jung and Public Citizen, a watchdog group in Washington, D.C., created a database of state and federal disciplining agencies and found 2,247 physicians disciplined for criminal conduct. They said states should apply stiffer penalties and make it easier for patients to locate disciplinary actions against doctors.

"[Patients] may not care if their doctor cheats on their taxes. But I'm pretty sure they wouldn't want one who was a murderer," said Dr. Jung, a senior lecturer at the University of Maryland.

The Federation of State Medical Boards and the American Medical Association have problems with the study. "Its relevance is questionable since, quite frankly, it goes back to 1999," said James Thompson, MD, president and CEO of the Texas-based federation. "There's been an extraordinary amount of progress since 1999."

Dr. Thompson said states have added physician profile systems that allow patients to check disciplinary actions against doctors. More than 30 medical boards now conduct criminal background checks on physicians. Several states took the action after the federation in 1998 recommended that its member boards require criminal checks on all license applicants.

AMA Board of Trustees Chair Cecil B. Wilson, MD, said, "Clearly, these boards are looking at the severity of the crime, and they are meting out punishment based on the severity of the crime. I don't think they've made a case that the boards have not been responsive."

Dr. Wilson added that any physician who commits a crime is one too many. But, he said, only a miniscule number of physicians -- less than 1% -- has ever committed a crime.

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External links

Public Citizen on physicians disciplined for criminal activity (link)

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