The number of doctors who faced serious disciplinary actions by state medical boards jumped 10% last year-the largest increase in almost a decade, a new national survey shows.
In its annual compilation of national data, the Federation of State Medical Boards found that licensing boards had meted out 4,590 "prejudicial" actions-or the most serious disciplinary penalties that involved revocations, suspensions or reprimands. That number, a big jump from the 4,169 such actions in 2002, was the highest annual increase in serious disciplinary measures since 1994, when the number rose by nearly 16%.
Several important factors affected the increase, including new state funding in Texas over the last two years that led to the hiring of five new attorneys and 20 additional enforcement officers for that state's board of medical examiners. The new staff logged about 100 more serious disciplinary actions in 2003 than in the previous year.
"I think what the numbers mean is that, with the resources medical boards have, they continue to be diligent in taking disciplinary actions," said Dale Austin, senior vice president of the federation. "The number of actions is (the) highest in history."
Donald Hofreuter, a physician who is administrator and chief executive officer of Wheeling (W.Va.) Hospital, suggested that at least part of that increase may be because of the heightened focus on patient safety, including national recognition efforts led by organizations such as the Leapfrog Group, among many others.
"Certainly, a large part of this growing awareness rests with the providers, both hospitals and physicians," Hofreuter said. "And I think that the state medical boards are taking their responsibilities much more seriously now than they did in the past."
Not everyone agrees. Public Citizen's Health Research Group, a longtime critic of supposedly lax discipline by state medical boards, said the increase in the number of the toughest enforcement actions against doctors doesn't reflect the growing physician population.
"It's totally misleading data," said Peter Lurie, a physician who is deputy director of the Washington-based consumer group. "They attempt to use this to show an apparent ever-upward trend in discipline. But those numbers have to be adjusted."
The 10% increase in prejudicial actions against doctors is negligible when the number is weighed against the steady increase in physicians over recent years. In 2002, when the American Medical Association reported there were 792,149 nonfederal physicians in the U.S., a total of 4,169 prejudicial actions represented about 5.3 actions per 1,000 non-federal doctors. In 2003, the figure had increased only slightly, to about 5.6 per 1,000, based on a total of 814,776 nonfederal physicians.
"As states across the country come under budget woes, medical boards are a part of that," Austin said. "But their work of protecting the public goes on."