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Is California Doing Enough To Protect Patients From Bad Doctors?

Kevin Antario Brown, a doctor who sexually assaulted eight female patients an...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: Kevin Antario Brown, a doctor who sexually assaulted eight female patients and an undercover detective while working at three medical facilities in Los Angeles and Glendale, Calif., listens as he is sentenced to 12 years and six months in prison, at the Los Angeles Criminal Justice Center in Los Angeles Friday, Dec. 16, 2011.

Is California Doing Enough To Protect Patients From Bad Doctors?

GUEST:

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo

Transcript

In 2011, Marian Hollingsworth needed to get a colonoscopy.

Her primary care doctor referred her to a gastroenterologist, who performed the procedure. It went well.

A few years later, Hollingsworth learned how to research doctors on the California Medical Board’s website.

She decided to check the records of the doctor who did her colonoscopy.

“And I about fell over, because he was about to start a 30-day suspension and seven years probation for a decades-long history of drug and alcohol abuse," she said. "But what finally got the attention of the medical board, is that he went after a patient with a hatchet.”

Hollingsworth discovered that the medical board had investigated this doctor before.

“And in the early 2000s he was recommended for the medical board’s diversion program that they had at that time, and he had failed some other diversion programs he had tried voluntarily," she said. "He had also failed the medical board version, and nothing was ever done.”

Any disciplinary action taken against a physician in California is listed on the medical board’s website.

Not required to tell patients

But the website is not exactly user-friendly.

In fact, someone searching for a doctor's public records needs to navigate through multiple screens, and be willing to sort through pages upon pages of legal documents, before they can discover exactly why a particular doctor was disciplined.

But even if a doctor is punished for being drunk on the job, they’re not required to tell patients about it.

A bill (SB 798) in the state legislature would have changed that.

It would have required doctors to notify patients in writing if the medical board put them on probation for a serious offense, like sexual misconduct with a patient, or operating under the influence of drugs.

The California Medical Association lobbied to kill the bill.

CMA officials did not agree to be interviewed for this story.

In an email, Joanne Adams, CMA's associate director of communications, said such patient notification “would erode the fundamental right to due process by basing notification on accusations, rather than a finding of fact.”

Bridget Gramme, administrative director for University of San Diego's Center for Public Interest Law, said that argument was patently false.

“Anyone that’s on probation, has either stipulated with the medical board that they did commit the conduct they’re accused of, or that the board could at least prove its case, or at least certain elements of its case,” she said.

Gramme said the CMA is dead wrong on this one.

“I think they’re trying to make it sound like there’s a good reason, but I don’t think they have a good reason," she said. "They just don’t want to have to tell their patients, because it would harm their business, and it would be embarrassing, and that’s just not a good enough reason.”

A unique perspective

There are an estimated 137,000 licensed physicians in California. Each year on average, the medical board puts 124 doctors on probation.

The failed bill would have applied to a subset of those doctors: some 40 a year.

In other words, the CMA lobbied to kill a measure that would have affected about two-one-hundredths of one percent (.02 percent) of all doctors in the state.

San Diego physician Jeoffry Gordon has a unique perspective on this issue.

He not only spent 35 years in private practice, but he also served on the state’s medical board for eight years back in the 1970s.

Gordon said the board has an obligation to protect patients from bad doctors.

“And to put their names on our website is not adequate," he said. "I think each physician ought to be responsible for notifying his patients that he’s not been morally responsible.”

Marian Hollingsworth has become a crusader for more public disclosure. The bottom line? She thinks the medical board does not have its priorities straight.

“The investigator in my case actually told me that it’s the medical board’s job to make sure doctors remain in practice for as long as possible," Hollingsworth recalled. "And I said, ‘Well, I thought it was to protect patients.’ And she goes, ‘Oh, that too.’”

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