Guest post: Einstein, Secrecy and the Medical Board of California

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Guest post by Rae Greulich, member of Consumers Union’s California Safe Patient Network

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” –Albert Einstein

In an attempt to drive home the responsibility of first line health care workers to care meticulously for hospital inpatients, a California physician asked his staff whether they knew the definition of negligent homicide. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, negligent homicide is a “killing without any intent to kill but occurs when a person is acting in negligence.”

This physician is the kind of doctor we want to care for us: one who is critically cognizant of the fragility of his patients’ well being. California is full of highly skilled, dedicated physicians–yet not all doctors take their patients’ welfare seriously.

Those who have elected medicine as their chosen profession have our trust, respect and our lives in their hands. They have voluntarily undertaken an enormous duty, as have those who oversee them and their licensure.

The Medical Board of California is a self-described consumer protection agency, and claims to accomplish this through “proper licensing and regulation of physicians and surgeons.” The MBC is all that stands between dangerous doctors and a vulnerable public.

Recently, California activists have encouraged the MBC to require that physicians who have been placed on probation inform their patients, old and new, of the existence and terms of that probation. Current regulations do not demand this, and the MBC is the entity that has the authority to take up the cause of the California consumer; the MBC should stop protecting offending doctors over unsuspecting patients.

Over 400 physicians are currently on probation in California. Probation is not just a slap on the wrist. When placed on probation, a physician’s license is often revoked, followed by the revocation being stayed in lieu of a period of probation during which they are allowed to continue to practice. Probation is unlikely to arise from a single offense, but rather a series of transgressions that show a pattern of unprofessional conduct, gross negligence or incompetence. The investigation and hearing process is lengthy. It can take years for a dangerous doctor to be placed on probation.

For example, effective July 2015, almost four years from the date of his last offense, a Los Angeles doctor was placed on five years probation for writing prescriptions to fictitious patients eleven times between April 2010 and September 2011, then taking the drugs himself.

A Los Altos Hills physician was first placed on five years probation in June of 2009 for a 2007 petty theft from a Hallmark store. Upon arrest, she stated that she intended to kill herself that evening. A board certified psychiatrist determined that the doctor was suffering from conditions that “may significantly affect her ability to practice medicine with safety to the public”, yet her probation allowed her to continue to practice with restrictions. Before her probation was complete, she shoplifted again in November 2012. Instead of losing her license, her probation was extended two years, starting in July 2015, close to three years after her second offense.

In March 2014, the MBC filed a formal accusation against a physician from Joshua Tree for gross negligence and incompetence relative to his care of three patients between January 2011 and August 2012. The physician removed what he believed to be a patient’s appendix. However, when the pathology report showed that it was not an appendix at all, the patient had to be returned to surgery to have the offending appendix excised. The same doctor perforated the lung of a pneumonia patient while inserting a chest tube. After the patient’s abdominal cavity filled with air, the doctor did exploratory surgery but could not locate the leak. It was determined several days later that that the patient had a perforated sigmoid colon and significant fecal contamination. A third patient operated on by this physician developed a post-surgical leak. A peer review board established that the doctor hadn’t tested adequately for leakage before closing. When the patient developed peritonitis, the doctor returned him to surgery but still found no leak. The patient developed sepsis, renal failure and four months later was brain dead. The physician is on probation for seven years, effective July 2015, three years after his last offense–and is still permitted to practice medicine.

In June 2015, a substance-abusing physician from Fresno received four years probation. The original accusation filed by MBC stated that he “has a life long history of drug and alcohol abuse that began in high school…” The accusation was filed in May 2014 for incidents that occurred between June 2009 and December 2010, during which the doctor injected himself with Demerol ten to fifteen times. During the same period he took Vicodin and Percocet without a prescription and obtained approximately 1500 tablets of Percocet without a prescription.

Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” By continuing to insulate offending physicians from the consequences of breaching the covenant upon which their profession is established, the Medical Board of California leaves patients in the dark and unprotected.
Guest post by Rae Greulich, member of Consumers Union’s California Safe Patient Network