Patients have the right to expect that their doctors are qualified professionals who will help them and not cause them harm through medical negligence. To help protect patients, state governments across the country have established medical boards that are in charge of regulating physicians’ licenses and disciplining bad doctors.

However, recent research published by USA Today indicates that many error-prone doctors may be falling through the cracks when it comes to medical board discipline. Based on an analysis of various data sources, including the National Practitioner Data Bank (a federal tracking system for monitoring physicians’ safety records), many doctors who have spotty safety records are actively practicing medicine across the nation.

The statistics are disconcerting. Over a 10-year period from 2001 to 2011, approximately 6,000 doctors faced a loss of privileges or another form of restriction on their activities from hospitals, clinics and other medical institutions due to medical mistakes. Knowing that state medical boards look at this type of event when deciding whether a doctor poses a danger to patients, one could easily assume that most, if not all, of these doctors faced some sort of discipline. However, more than half of these doctors never faced any license restrictions, suspensions or fines.

Perhaps even more surprising was the indifference medical boards showed toward severe misconduct. During the study period, approximately 250 doctors who were sanctioned by health care institutions and were described as being “immediate threat(s) to public safety” never lost their licenses.

The USA Today research raises some serious questions about patient safety and what might be a lax attitude toward physician discipline across the nation.

What do you think about this situation? Should physician misconduct be treated more seriously? 

Source: USA Today, “Thousands of doctors practicing despite errors, misconduct,” Peter Eisler and Barbara Hansen, Aug. 20, 2013