A number of doctors who face malpractice payments or hospital sanctions for sexual misconduct escape disciplinary actions from their state medical boards, according to a study.
The study conducted by consumer advocacy group Public Citizen says that 70% of 253 U.S. doctors reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank by malpractice insurers or their hospitals for sexual misconduct between 2003 and 2013 haven't been disciplined by their state boards. The study was published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.
“This is concerning because hospitals are required to report those physicians to the relevant boards, so the boards need to look into these cases and investigate them and take proper action against them,” said Azza AbuDagga, lead author of the study and a Health Services Research for Public Citizen. “It violates a very basic principal of the patient-physician relationship.”
In all, 1,039 physicians in the National Practitioner Data Bank had at least one sexual misconduct-related report between 2003 and 2013, and most of them did have action taken against their licenses by state medical boards. But 177 of the 253 doctors reported to the database by malpractice insurers or hospitals were not disciplined by medical boards.
Medical boards, however, aren't likely brushing off such cases, said Lisa Robin, chief advocacy officer at the Federation of State Medical Boards.
“They take sexual misconduct very, very seriously, but boards can only take action on information that they have,” Robin said.
It's possible that medical boards simply aren't getting all reports of sexual misconduct, despite laws in most states that require hospitals to report certain actions taken against physicians.
A few years ago, the federation facilitated work between the National Practitioner Data Bank and state medical boards meant to help the boards determine if they were getting all the same information sent to the data bank.
“In a number of states, there was quite a disconnect,” Robin said.
As a result of that work, boards have been able to work to with hospitals to improve that reporting, Robin said.
Also, the data bank now has a system that can alert state boards to reports—though for a fee. Robin said the federation has been trying—albeit unsuccessfully so far—to get that information to states for free.
Terri Keville, a partner with Davis Wright Tremaine in Los Angeles who represents hospitals and their medical staffs, said California's medical board, for example, doesn't take sexual misconduct lightly. California hospitals must report misconduct to the state's medical board if hospitals restrict a physician's privileges for a certain amount of time or if the physician resigns while under investigation, she said.
“If you have one of these sexual misconduct cases and there is really good evidence then the medical board, at least here in my observation, will absolutely do something about that,” Keville said. She did say, however, that the medical board does its own investigation that can sometimes come to a different conclusion than the one reached by a hospital.
According to the report, the lack of action by state medical boards in some cases isn't limited to those involving sexual misconduct. A Public Citizen report showed that state medical boards didn't take action against more than half of doctors reported by hospitals to the data bank for negligence or incompetence.
"We believe there's an overall problem with boards taking action based on information coming from other sources," AbuDagga said.
The report published Wednesday also found that among physicians who were disciplined by state medical boards, many faced serious actions. About 39% either had their licenses revoked or suspended.
The report also looked at characteristics of physicians and victims in such cases.
Nearly 64% of doctors with sexual misconduct-related reports were between ages 40 and 59, though physicians in that age range make up only about 50% of all U.S. doctors. The largest groups of victims of sexual misconduct—at least for the malpractice-related reports—were women and those ages 20 to 39, and the reports occurred mostly in outpatient settings. The majority of those reports indicated the victims suffered “emotional injury only,” according to the report.