A Tale of Two State Agencies: A Story of a Doctor on Probation

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One may ask what the California Medical Board (MBC) and the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) could possibly have in common. While they may deal with different business on the surface, they are both meant to serve the public, and share a mission to protect consumers. Both agencies provide quality licensing and regulate their license holders. The MBC follows the California Business and Protections Code, and the DMV uses the California Vehicle Code to monitor their licensees in order to protect the public. Those of us who hold licenses are all acquainted with the DMV and its licensing process. We are required to be familiar with many of the laws that we must follow in order to safely operate our motor vehicles, and we are concerned if we receive a violation. Some Californians need to maintain a good driving record to even gain employment. We know we should not drink and drive, as a DUI in California is a legal nightmare which could lead to the loss of employment, suspension of driving privileges, and heavy fines. More importantly, a DUI could potentially cause a deadly accident. A DUI involving a death is a serious crime in California. The DMV has strict rules for driving while under the influence. It enforces these rules, and the public expects them to.

One would think, then, that our State Medical Board which licenses our physicians and surgeon would maintain as strict, if not more stringent enforcement of their licenses. They should–but tragically, they do not.
Allow me to share a story about a doctor on probation whose troubled past was reviewed by both the MBC and the DMV. Who do you think did the better job of protecting the public in the regulation of this probationer doctor’s California licenses? I will tell his story, then you can decide for yourself.

There was a Los Angeles celebrity doctor who was known to have a problem with dangerous alcohol use, and had harmed various Californians–including a family member of a celebrity, who died while under his care. For the sake of this blog, we’ll call him Dr. Smith. Dr. Smith’s long criminal record was first recorded thirteen years ago. Here is a breakdown:

  • September 2002: Arrested for losing control of his vehicle and striking a parked car.
  • May 2003: Charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Placed on probation for 3 years.
  • December 2006: Convicted for driving with a blood alcohol level of .08 percent or greater.

As his record shows, Dr. Smith had sustained multiple convictions for alcohol-related offenses. This was just the beginning. There were more convictions and jail time still in his future.

In those days, most doctors charged with alcohol or drug-related crimes avoided discipline by referring themselves to a now-abolished confidential physician diversion program. This is exactly what Dr. Smith did in December 2006. However, there is no evidence recording the length of time the doctor participated in the program–or if he even had at all. In January 2007, he entered a rehab program, but was discharged three days later.

His arrest record continues:

  • June 2008: Arrested for driving under the influence.
  • January 2009: Convicted and sentenced to one year in jail, of which he served 8 months.

There is no suspension of his medical license on record while he was incarcerated.

Here are the actions that the DMV took to protect the public from this doctor:

  • January 2007: Restricted his driver’s license.
  • March 2008: Suspended his license.
  • September 2008: Suspended his license again.
  • January 2009: Revoked his license completely.

Meanwhile, here are the actions that the MBC took to protect California health care consumers:

  • April 2007: Filed an accusation against the doctor’s license. This means that the Board believes there are problems with his license, but they need to investigate further. He continued to practice.
  • April 2009: The doctor chose to surrender his license to practice medicine.

No, the story does not stop here. In June 2012, Dr. Smith filed a petition to get his license back so he could once again practice medicine in California. Here was the MBC’s response:

  • November 2012: An Administrative Law Judge agreed to reinstate Dr. Smith’s medical license, and placed him on probation for 3 years.
  • March 2013: The Medical Board agreed to reinstate his license.

He got his license back! Practicing again on probation, his patients were still not allowed to be informed of his long, troubled past. But wait, there’s more.

  • December 2013: The MBC issued Dr. Smith a Cease Practice Order for failure to submit to drug testing, which he was required to do in order to maintain his probation status per the Uniform Standards for Substance Abusing Licensees. He failed to submit to drug testing in August, twice in November, and twice in December of 2013.
  • October 2014: His license was revoked for the second time.
  • There are also two malpractice judgements on the record, for October 2007 and December 2007.

So, what do you think? Which agency did a better job of protecting the public? The DMV began to take official action on his driver’s license beginning in 2007. The Medical Board began to investigate his medical license, but did not take any action until 2009 when Dr. Smith decided to surrender his license on his own, knowing that he was about to lose it and would be able to re-apply earlier if he surrendered. In January 2009, the DMV revoked his license. At the time he was deemed unfit to drive, this doctor still held his medical license and practiced on patients.

Death or injury from medical harm by a physician with a history of substance abuse is just as serious as death or injury by means of an alcohol-related vehicular incident. The people harmed and the lives lost are just as meaningful, regardless of whether they were on the road or in a hospital. This doctor did not last 6-7 months on probation before he failed to comply once again because of alcohol abuse. In all of these years of arrests, convictions, and jail time, his patients were never notified of his issues–issues which were directly related to and impacted their quality of care. If you were his patient, would you want to know if this doctor was on probation, and the reasons why? I know I would. Notification of Dr. Smith’s probational status might have saved a patient from life-altering injuries, or even saved someone’s life.

If you live in California, please sign and share our online petition encouraging the Medical Board to require doctors on probation to inform their patients about their probationary status.
Want to share your thoughts? Tweet at us or use the hashtag #DocsOnProbation.
Guest blog post by Michele Monserratt-Ramos