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Physicians on Probation: Right to Know?


I was recently asked by a journalism student at WUFT what my thoughts are on a patient's right to know whether their physician has been placed on probation.

To answer this question, it is first important to differentiate the types of disciplinary actions that are taken against a healthcare provider's license. A medical license can be revoked, suspended, or placed on probation, the latter being the only situation under which a physician can still practice. If a physician is placed on probation, it can be for a multitude of reasons, including drug use or abuse, sexual misconduct, or patient harm. During the probationary period, it has not been historically required for a physician to notify his or her patients of the disciplinary action taken or the event(s) that led to the discipline. The state of California is the first to pass legislation requiring physicians to notify not only their hospital employer and malpractice insurer, but also their patients.

Given this, the question is should all states adopt this policy and what are the pros and cons of both sides?

As a patient advocate, my clients are my primary and sole interest. If and when a client and I decide that the current medical team is not serving his or her needs, my goal is to identify a more appropriate provider. In doing so, it is my practice to investigate the provider's medical license, specifically whether it is clear and active or if there has been action taken against it. While I know to do this, many people are simply not aware that this information is public or where to find it. In addition, it would not be efficient or reasonable for a patient to have to check this prior to each visit. Therefore, California state Sen. Jerry Hill authored the law that places the requirement on the physician to notify the patient, rather than the patient carrying the burden of investigation.

While I fully support this law, I do want to make one final point. We live in a very litigious society and malpractice cases against physicians are not only commonplace, they are in many cases excessive and inappropriate. Some physicians choose to take relatively healthy patients with few complications for this very reason-to avoid unnecessary litigation. On the other hand, other physicians work in high volume medical centers where the patient population is typically very ill with many complications. In these situations, the risk of malpractice claims is usually higher since poor outcomes may be more likely, even if the physician's actions played no role in the ultimate outcome.

With this being said, I believe an individual patient should be made aware of disciplinary actions taken against his or her physician and then be allowed to make the decision if continuing under the provider's care is in his or her best interest. Just as I agree with the state of California posting restaurant ratings for the public to see, I also agree with their latest legislation to empower patients to make their own decisions based on the information presented to them.


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