The Black Cloud of a Medical Board Investigation

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Disclosures

December 23, 2015

In This Article

Legislator Investigates 'Overzealous' Board

Doctors who have gone through the board process often don't want to talk about it publicly, but they have been talking to Michael W. Chippendale, a Republican in the Rhode Island House of Representatives who is chairman of a state commission investigating Rhode Island's medical board.

Chippendale's concerns about the board began more than a year ago, when he showed up at his gastroenterologist's office for a colonoscopy, and the office was closed. He learned that all three doctors were forced to stop work for a week, owing to a complaint filed against one of them. He won’t reveal the details of the complaint, but it "didn’t even have to do with practicing medicine," he says. "It was more of a personal accusation." Chippendale says the police had looked into it and dismissed it within 24 hours because it was "outlandish."

He says the board initially suspended the doctor's license and then reinstated it with restrictions. The doctor is not allowed to perform procedures, which are an essential part of his work. But the investigation still hasn't been closed. The legislator says the physician has undergone three board-ordered psychiatric evaluations and now it wants a fourth one, but he has refused to take it. "His attorney's position has been that the board was sending him to forensic psychiatrists until they got the answer they wanted," Chippendale says, adding that the doctor has started a civil action against the person who filed the complaint.

The Rhode Island board, like all boards, is prevented by law from discussing specific cases, and it has said little about Chippendale's investigation. A statement[1] by a spokesman for the board, provided in October to the Providence Journal, said simply, "We look forward to providing whatever data or other information that the legislative commission needs as it looks at the discipline process."

Chippendale's commission, authorized by the legislature, is starting to hold hearings. After he released a press release on the commission, "I got a deluge of phone calls and emails from doctors," the legislator says. "They're still coming out and letting me know their stories." He says it's beginning to appear that perhaps the board has been "overzealous." He thinks it has become a quality-of-care issue, because intense investigations divert physicians from their work.

"There is this universal and overwhelming fear doctors have toward the board," Chippendale says. "It's the kind of fear that a 4-year-old has about the bogeyman in the closet. At first it seemed irrational to me, but I think I understand it now."

More Dangerous Than Malpractice Lawsuits

Doctors are often more fearful of malpractice lawsuit than a complaint to the medical board, but in fact, a complaint to the board is more common and potentially more dangerous than a malpractice filing, according to William Sullivan, DO, an emergency physician and attorney in suburban Chicago who has represented physicians charged by the Illinois board.

Complaints are omnipresent. According to a 2009 report[2] about the California board, 1 of every 8 physicians in the state was being reported to the board each year. About one quarter of complaints to the board were investigated, and about one quarter of investigated complaints led to disciplinary proceedings against the physician, the report added. Adverse actions by medical boards are reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), and their number is almost four times greater than the number of malpractice payouts that are reported, Sullivan says.

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