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Medical Malpractice An Epidemic, Yet Doctors Consistently Walk Free

Doctors are practicing across the country in spite of serious errors and misconduct in their professional lives. A majority of those doctors who continue to practice have had their clinical privileges revoked by hospitals or have been strictly restricted in their practice, but the medical boards in their state have not taken actions against them such as revoking their license to practice.

A recent investigation by USA TODAY has found that thousands of medical professionals continue to practice, despite being banned by medical offices and hospitals.
Texas doctor Greggory Phillips was charged in 2011 with prescribing the wrong painkillers to a patient, causing her death. In 2008, another of his patients died from a mix of pain medication and psychiatric medications. He had previously been sanctioned for medication mismanagement, fined thousands of dollars, had his medical license placed on probation, and was known as a drug user himself, but he was allowed to continue practicing medicine. It was not until 2011 that Phillips was barred by the medical board from seeing patients, after years of investigations and negotiations behind closed doors.

The state medical boards across the U.S. continue to face criticism for slow, laborious investigative practices and a perceived reluctance to punish or even confront doctors who are harming patients or otherwise acting unethically. One of the issues may be that the physician oversight systems are typically underfunded and overburdened.

The National Practitioner Data Bank is a national repository which assists medical boards in tracking the license records of physicians as well as their malpractice payouts and any disciplinary actions they have faced by HMOs and hospitals. Reports of misconduct must by law be filed every time a doctor faces an “adverse action.” Those reports are supposed to be reviewed by each state’s medical board.

Between 2001 and 2011, at least 6,000 medical doctors lost their clinical privileges or had them severely curtailed, though more than 50 percent were neither fined nor lost their license to practice. Close to 250 doctors who faced sanctions as an “immediate threat to health and safety” did not have their license restricted or revoked. Additionally, 900 other doctors who were cited for incompetence or negligence did not lose their licenses. And the doctors who had the worst records of malpractice have continued to treat patients: though 100,000 doctors paid out for malpractice claims between 2001 and 2011, less than one doctor out of five had to respond to any licensure action from their state medical board.