State medical boards were busier than ever in 1998, but the number of disciplinary actions against doctors hasn't changed much in the past several years, according to data released this month.
Total board actions in 1998 numbered a record 4,520, up 1.2% from 4,467 actions in 1997. Punitive actions, including loss of license and license suspension, numbered 3,767, up 1% from 1997 but short of the 1996 count of 3,821 (See box).
Those numbers exceed the number of physicians who were penalized, since doctors are often punished in multiple states where they hold licenses.
Total board actions include procedures such as license denial because of lack of qualification or reinstatement following a disciplinary action.
The numbers were released by the Federation of State Medical Boards, based in Euless, Texas. Federation officials were not available last week to comment.
Consumer group Public Citizen calculated state-by-state rates of "serious" disciplinary actions based on the federation's data. The group defines serious actions as license revocations, surrenders, suspensions and probations/restrictions.
Nationwide, there were 2,731 serious disciplinary actions in 1998. Based on a total of 726,648 nonfederal physicians, that's a rate of 3.76 actions per 1,000 physicians, slightly below the 1997 rate of 3.84, according to the Washington-based watchdog group.
The rate of serious disciplinary actions was down 12.6% from 1994, when the rate was 4.3, the group said.
The most-active enforcers were medical boards in Alaska, Mississippi and Oklahoma, while states with the fewest actions were Delaware, Florida and Tennessee.
Public Citizen said the data "raise serious questions" about patient safety. "It is likely that patients are being injured or killed more often in states with poor doctor disciplinary records than in states with consistent top-10 performances," it said.