Investigation: Minn. medical board light on doctor discipline

Star Tribune finds dozens of physicians escape penalties

A Minneapolis Star Tribune investigation this week found that the state medical board often fails to discipline physicians for errors and poor patient care.

Minnesota's 20,000 physicians are governed by the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice, which is comprised of 11 physicians and five public representatives appointed by the governor. The board is empowered to revoke or restrict the license of physicians who fail to meet the state's minimum standards.  It also is tasked with investigating complaints from patients and fellow health professionals.

According to the Star Tribune investigation, the board often does not penalize physicians whose mistakes cause harm to patients or who provide consistently substandard care.

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For example, records show that at least 46 physicians since 2000 were not disciplined by the Minnesota board after authorities in other states penalized them for infractions, such as committing a crime, making a medical error, or having an inappropriate relationship with a patient. In addition, the board never disciplined more than 50% of the 74 physicians who lost their privileges to work in Minnesota health care facilities in the past 10 years. At least 13 of those undisciplined physicians lost privileges over incompetence, substandard care, or inadequate skills.

The investigation also found that the Minnesota board in the past year took action in only 32 of the 728 complaints submitted against Minnesota physicians. According to Public Citizen's Health Research Group, the state had the lowest discipline rate in the United States in 2010.

Is the board's approach too lax?
Board members say the record reflects a regulatory approach that focuses on correcting problems instead of punishing physicians for mistakes. "You can't take everybody out of practice just because they had a problem. That's why we're not in the business of removing credentials unless absolutely necessary," says Robert Leach, the board's executive director.

However, some experts say the policies favor physicians at the expense of patients. Minneapolis attorney Chris Messerly notes that in many cases, "you can't find out who is a good doctor and who is not" because complaints against physicians do not become public if the board chooses not to take action (Meryhew/Howatt [1], Star Tribune, 2/6; Meryhew/Howatt [2], Star Tribune, 2/6; Meryhew/Howatt [3], Star Tribune, 2/6).

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