State boards took fewer disciplinary actions against doctors in 2010

The slight drop is part of an increase of more than 1,000 actions over the past decade.

By Carolyne Krupa — Posted May 20, 2011

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Disciplinary actions against physicians by state medical and osteopathic boards fell slightly in 2010 to 5,652 from 5,721 in 2009, according to an annual report from the Federation of State Medical Boards (link).

Many factors may have contributed to the 1.2% decline, such as state budget cuts, limited staffing and new state laws that require boards to regulate other health professionals, decreasing their capacity to respond to complaints, said FSMB President and CEO Humayun J. Chaudhry, DO.

In some cases, a drop in board actions could signal positive changes, he said.

"If a state board is effective about educating doctors, educating the public and remediating doctors, they will have fewer board actions as a result. Efficiency is a difficult thing to gauge by looking at the board actions," Dr. Chaudhry said.

A total of 850,085 physicians have active medical licenses with the nation's 70 medical and osteopathic boards.

"I wouldn't make too much of a 1.2% decrease," Dr. Chaudhry said.

Over the past decade, total board actions have increased by more than 1,000, a fact Dr. Chaudhry attributes in part to better sharing of information across state lines. FSMB's Disciplinary Alert Service informs all 70 boards any time a physician is disciplined by a member board. "It allows them to instantly learn what is happening outside of their jurisdiction," he said.

But critics say the numbers show that medical boards aren't doing enough to protect patients from substandard doctors.

Fluctuating discipline rates

In its own analysis of the data, consumer advocacy group Public Citizen found that the rate at which doctors are disciplined by medical boards has declined 20% from a peak of 3.72 serious actions per 1,000 physicians in 2004 to 2.97 serious actions per 1,000 physicians in 2010. The group defines serious actions as revocations, surrenders, suspensions or restrictions on a doctor's medical license.

The states with the lowest discipline rates are Minnesota, South Carolina and Wisconsin, according to Public Citizen's annual board rankings (link).

Total board actions dropped from 6,265 in 2004 to 5,652 in 2010, according to FSMB figures.

"There is, unfortunately, considerable evidence that most boards are inadequately disciplining physicians," said Sidney Wolfe, MD, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. "Action must be taken, legislatively and through public pressure on medical boards themselves, to increase the amount of discipline and thus the amount of patient protection."

Public Citizen said boards do a better job disciplining physicians if they have the proper resources, including adequate funding and strong leadership; can conduct proactive investigations; use reliable data from multiple sources; and are independent from other parts of state government.

Dr. Chaudhry said Public Citizen's definition of serious actions is too narrow. Almost any board action is serious given the importance of a physician's medical license and how it affects the ability to practice medicine. "You don't need to revoke a license every time an issue is brought before a board," he said.

Each board operates under different resources and rules, and those can change from year to year, he said. "There is so much variability between different states' capabilities. You are really not able to compare apples to apples."

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Medical board actions

View in PDF

Click to see data in PDF.

State medical board disciplinary actions against physicians decreased by 1% from 2009 to 2010.

Year Nonprejudicial Prejudicial Total
2000 666 3,951 4,617
2001 647 4,015 4,662
2002 706 4,169 4,875
2003 640 4,590 5,230
2004 763 5,502 6,265
2005 801 5,412 6,213
2006 708 4,866 5,574
2007 748 4,571 5,319
2008 878 4,501 5,379
2009 890 4,831 5,721
2010 854 4,798 5,652

Source: Summary of 2010 Board Actions, Federation of State Medical Boards (link)

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