The Dangers of a Medical Board Investigation: How to Protect Yourself

Mark Crane

Disclosures

July 24, 2018

In This Article

The Jeopardy of a State Medical Board Investigation

Physicians often worry that a malpractice suit could derail their careers and financial livelihood. Yet another potential source of worry is the jeopardy that physicians face from a complaint filed with state medical boards.

Any patient, colleague, pharmacist, or hospital can file a complaint at any time. No matter how frivolous you may regard the allegation, the boards are required to begin at least a preliminary investigation. In some states, your accuser can remain anonymous, at least initially, and you may never even see the complaint. Unlike a criminal matter or civil case, you may not have the right to face your accuser. Although, if the case progresses, the identity of the complainant is usually revealed, or physicians are able to figure it out anyhow.

An investigation into a blatantly false accusation or relatively minor matter such as alleged rudeness to a patient can morph into a full-scale probe of every aspect of your practice. Boards have the right to expand investigations way beyond the initial complaint, such as demanding to see every medical record in your office. While that isn't typical, attorneys say it happens occasionally. On the other hand, a large percentage of investigations are without merit and are closed before the physician is even informed of the complaint.

Since 2008, at least 4000 physicians were disciplined annually, according to the Federation of State Medical Boards, which represents 70 medical and osteopathic boards in the United States and its territories. In 2015, a total of 4091 physicians were disciplined. Some 655 physicians were put on probation, 594 had their licenses suspended, and 267 had their licenses revoked.[1]

Some state boards have taken an almost zero-tolerance approach to complaints, both serious and minor, say attorneys who defend physicians.

"The boards naturally want to protect the public from doctors they consider unsafe or impaired," said Brian H. Tew, MD, JD, an attorney in Houston. "Some physicians are scoundrels who deserve whatever they get. But the vast majority aren't a danger to the public although they may have made mistakes. The pendulum has swung too far. Boards are fining doctors a lot of money and issuing reprimands and suspensions more than ever before. I haven't seen any metric to show that medicine has improved because of their aggressive stance."

"The boards are more aggressive now," said Ronald W. Chapman Sr, an attorney with offices in Florida and Michigan. "Boards have to protect the public. But sometimes they operate from an ivory tower, not the practice of medicine in the real world. You can't always have a perfect record. The boards can put unrealistic pressures on physicians for some pretty minor stuff."

Hearing from a state board is often so distressing that some physicians inadvertently do things that make matters worse for themselves after receiving a complaint. Here are some pitfalls to avoid and key areas state board investigators are looking into.

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