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Q&A with California Medical Board PIO Dan Wood: Citizens Have a Right to Know What Government Is Doing

Q&A with California Medical Board PIO Dan Wood: Citizens Have a Right to Know What Government Is Doing

Picture of William Heisel

Dan Wood, William Heisel, California Medical Board, reporting on health

The first part of my interview with Dan Wood, the director of public affairs for the Medical Board of California, ran on Monday. Our conversation continues below.

Q: You came at a time when the board has been dealing with two particularly high-profile cases. The first is the case of Dr. Conrad Murray, the doctor found guilty of manslaughter in Michael Jackson's death. What have you learned about the current state of journalism through your role in handling inquiries in that case and from observing the trial and coverage?

A: Celebrity cases or sensational cases draw a lot of attention. For Dr. Murray, many people were asking why does it take so long to take his license away to practice?  First of all, when he was arrested and arraigned, the judge in the case imposed an order that prohibited him from practicing medicine until the case was settled. That made any actions by us rather moot. The most the medical board can do is take away the license to practice which really is no different than a judge ordering him not to practice medicine.

Also, as in a criminal case, evidence must be gathered, witnesses assembled and a full notification of the charges presented to the accused. The physician then has the job of defending himself against the allegations, usually with the aid of counsel. Sometimes a physician will simply give up and surrender his license. At that point there is nothing more the Board can do to him. Criminal actions become the responsibility of a prosecutor if warranted.

What I have learned about the current state of journalism is what I already knew from being a journalist: a lack of fact checking and the rush to be first can lead to inaccurate stories. I also get to deal with good journalists who will actually work with me to check facts and see that wording is correct and accurate. Sometimes one single word can change the meaning of a story and I really appreciate the ones that consult me to ensure accuracy.

Q: Another case involves prison physician Dr. Richard M. Tan, one of California's highest-paid employees. He's been accused by the board of gross negligence. Is this a story you would have covered as a journalist in Sacramento, and, if so, is there a different angle that you would have pursued?

A: Dr. Tan is one of several physicians employed by the California Department of Corrections that has been placed on probation by the medical board. Probation involves retraining and restriction on a physician's ability to practice medicine. Gross negligence is the term used to describe substandard care.

While on probation and unable to practice medicine, Dr. Tan still draws his full salary from the Department of Corrections, which is over $200,000 a year. There are other physicians in the corrections department also drawing full salary and unable to practice medicine. Some of them end up with menial tasks like delivering prison mail and cleaning, still while drawing huge salaries.

The problem lies with the Corrections Department for allowing this to happen; the medical board has no control over their employment or how much they are paid. That is entirely a Corrections Department decision and sometimes that fact gets left out of stories leading people to believe it is the fault of the board that the non-practicing doctors are getting big paychecks for doing next to nothing. Again, the most we can do is take away the license to practice.

Q: I've written a lot about the length of time it takes the board to take action against the doctor. I have monitored the board's self-analysis on this question for more than a decade now, and I have seen that window gradually shrink. Now that you are on the inside of the operation, what do you think are the main obstacles the board faces in responding quickly and decisively to patient complaints?

A: Each case gets the same amount of attention from our investigators and enforcement team. As with criminal cases, the goal is to serve due process for the accused. Making sure an accused physician has the chance to answer for his actions and defend himself takes time. Ensuring due process and giving the defense time to respond is not a fast process; however, we have always been looking for ways to streamline the process without infringing on the rights of the accused.

Q: The board in California, like most boards around the country, works both as an educational and standard setting organization and as a disciplinary agency. Because it is comprised mostly of physicians, there is a perception that there is more focus on the former and less on the latter. What can you tell us about the way board members, both physicians and non-physicians, view their roles? Do they see themselves as patient advocates or physician advocates?

A: The Medical Board of California is part of the California Department of Consumer Affairs. The key word here is "consumer." Our job is to make sure the physicians and medical professional we license rise to the high standards we set. Having physicians on the Board helps us set these standards at a level that provides California health care consumers the best possible health care anywhere.  When that care falls below the levels set by the board, the board takes action to correct the situation.

The people on our board receive only a $100 per day as compensation when they attend a board meeting. These people are appointed by the Governor and are chosen by him based on their backgrounds and integrity. Their job is to represent the best interest of the people of California and they are advocates of excellent health care. That includes educating the public on their rights concerning health care and what is acceptable medical practices and what is not. We encourage and educate people on how to file a complaint against a medical professional and we investigate all complaints with equal vigor. The medical board faces the same frustrations with perceptions that the justice system does. When a person robs a bank, in front of 100 witnesses, leaves his fingerprints on the note to the teller that is in his handwriting, and then is caught at the front door with a bag full of money that has the serial numbers of the stolen money and then surrenders saying "you got me, I did it, I robbed the bank," it will still take considerable time to sentence him even if he pleads guilty in court.

Q: What question has a reporter asked you that surprised you and why?

A: I don't think any question has surprised me. I have been in their shoes for too many years and I would be asking the same questions.

Q: Just one more question. I have had a long-running discussion with reporters about whether we should be required to submit FOIA or CPRA requests (or jump through any other hoops) to gain access to public information. My colleague Marshall Allen says reporters should nod and follow the rules, leaving fights over access to other forums. I say that reporters should refuse to do anything formal and demand to see the records on the spot. What did you prefer when you were a reporter and what do you expect from reporters now when they ask you for public records?

A: The Freedom of Information Act and the California Public Records Act are valuable tools for citizens as well as journalists. As a journalist I have had to use both the acts to secure information that a public agency really did not want to produce. Most of the time just asking the question, "do I need to file a formal request?" was enough to get the information produced.

However, there have been times when I was forced to get a legal team involved and file such a request. Both acts are there to protect all Americans rights granted with the First Amendment to the Constitution. Sometimes journalists and the media get backlash from the public for the stories filed. However, this is a government of the people by the people, and we as citizens have the right to know what our government is doing.

I do not agree with your colleague's idea of "nod and follow the rules." Nor do I feel that "reporters should refuse to do anything formal." I feel it is a journalist's duty to challenge rules that restrict the free flow of information while at the same time using the tools like FOIA and CPRA that are there to protect our rights and ensure the free flow of information.

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