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Well Sourced: State medical boards can illuminate shadowy practices

Well Sourced: State medical boards can illuminate shadowy practices

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If you have never looked up a state medical board file, stop reading this story and do it now.

There are a dozen stories you should be writing sitting right there in those files, and you haven't even bothered to take a glance. Every state has some agency that oversees the licensing of physicians. Some of them have obvious names, such as the Texas Medical Board, Oregon Medical Board or Virginia Board of Medicine. Others are not so obvious, like Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing.

SOURCE: State medical boards

WHAT IT DOES: Licenses and disciplines state medical doctors.

WHAT IT DOES NOT DO: Actively police doctors. Also, depending on the board, it may only regulate medical doctors – physicians with an “M.D.” in their credentials – but leave osteopaths (O.D.), podiatrists (D.P.M.), dentists (D.D.S. and D.M.D.) and other health professionals to other agencies.

RECORDS: Even if you are talking to a doctor for a story about free flu shots, you should check with your medical board to make sure he or she is, indeed, licensed. Remember that a physician often is licensed in multiple states because they often went to medical school and started their career in one place and then started their practice in another. I have found doctors with licenses in more than 10 states. To find out information about those licenses, you will need to go state by state.

In California, go to www.medbd.ca.gov for MDs. Also try the Osteopathic Medical Board of California at www.ombc.ca.gov.

For other states, start with the Association of State Medical Board Executive Directors. It provides a useful search tool that lets you search records from 17 states all at once to see if doctors are licensed or have previously had licenses there. Now, that still leaves 33 other states that you have to search, but it’s a start.

If you’re trying to find out who runs the medical boards, you can go to the Federation of State Medical Boards and see a list.

The most comprehensive and up to date list I have found is maintained by the American Medical Association, which lists all physician licensing agencies.

These same boards will also have disciplinary records, which have varying degrees of detail depending on your state. In California, many of the records are posted online. But it’s always good to request the full file. The records will give you details not only about that specific case but also about how medicine is practiced at hospitals.

DRAWBACKS: The boards will not give you names of patients, but you can deduce the names with a little gumshoe. They often use initials that match plaintiffs who have sued. Don’t assume that because the discipline is light the offense must have been inconsequential. These doctors often have good lawyers and essentially plea bargain with the boards so their records remain unblemished. Remember, too, that doctors make mistakes. Being accused of botching one surgery doesn’t mean a doctor is incompetent. One of the most common charges is just that, “incompetence,” and it typically requires more than one mistake for a conviction.

SUGGESTION: Look for patterns. If this doctor has been in and out of drug rehab and has injured five patients, you might not only have a story about the doctor but about the hospitals, physician groups and medical boards that failed to stop him.

EXAMPLE: Rong-Gong Lin II at the Los Angeles Times tracked the history of Dr. Jan Adams using medical board records while reporting on the death of rapper Kanye West’s mom during plastic surgery.

TESTIMONIAL: Lin covered the Donda West story from the beginning and started wondering why Dr. Jan Adams had been allowed to practice so long with so many lawsuits and other accusations of bad practices. He wrote:

In April 2007, the Medical Board of California filed a complaint seeking to revoke or suspend his medical license because of multiple alcohol-related convictions. That complaint has not been resolved, but state records show that on June 25, Adams' medical license expired. He had been denied the opportunity to renew his license to practice medicine because he failed to comply with a family support order, such as alimony or child support.

The Associated Press reported that two malpractice lawsuits against Adams in 2001 resulted in payouts of more than $200,000 each.

“The medical board’s disciplinary records were extremely useful and detailed in talking about the doctor’s records,” Lin told me.

He read through all of the records related to Adams and thought something seemed amiss.

“From a lay person’s point of view, it seemed like it took a long time for Adams to be disciplined on this issue, considering his history of driving under the influence. So it seemed natural to figure out how Adams’ disciplinary record compared to his peers,” Lin said.

“When we found that it took more than 900 days per case to resolve each case, that seemed like a compelling figure to use as the point of the story.“

There were some records that remained off limits, though.

“It would have been helpful to have known whether Dr. Adams was in the diversion program, but the state deems that information confidential.”

The diversion program was a route that for many years physicians in California were allowed to take when they got in trouble with alcohol or drugs. They could get therapy but end up with a permanent mark on their public record. California later eliminated the program. But the example serves as a reminder to reporters that the facts documented in medical board records are often just one piece of the puzzle. Don't assume that the absence of a disciplinary history means a physician is top notch.

Photo by Phalinn Ooi via Flickr.

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