State medical boards disciplined fewer physicians in 1996 than they did the previous year, the first drop recorded in the five years the Federation of State Medical Boards of the United States has tracked such information.
A survey by the Euless, Texas-based federation found 3,347 physicians had their licenses revoked or restricted, or received some other penalty from a state medical board in 1996. The number of disciplined physicians was down 0.8% from 1995's total of 3,375. The 1995 number marked a 7.3% jump from 1994 and followed increases in previous years of between 4% and 16%.
Meanwhile, the number of penalties against physicians went up, although the increase was negligible. State boards took 3,821 actions against last year's 3,347 penalized physicians, up only 0.2% from the 3,813 penalties state boards handed out in 1995 for such violations as sexual misconduct, insurance fraud, incompetence and substance abuse.
Doctors can receive more than one penalty depending on the nature of the offense. They also can receive penalties from more than one state medical board.
The federation's executive vice president, Dale Austin, said his organization had no sure evidence why the discipline rate has gone down.
However, he theorized that state medical boards have less time for disciplinary actions because they're trying to keep up with changes in managed care and healthcare technology. Some states also have changed their laws so medical boards are held to a higher standard of proof before issuing any citation, Austin said.
Meanwhile, state boards are now more likely to be taken to court once they've threatened action against a physician, Austin said. Any sort of action by a state board can result in a loss of managed-care privileges, so physicians will take their cases to court in an attempt to drag out the process and hold onto their business, Austin said.