Consumers Reports News Release:
For Immediate Release: Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Contact: Michael McCauley, firstname.lastname@example.org, 415-431-6747, ext 7606 (office) or 415-902-537 (cell)
Consumer Reports: Alaska Rated Among Worst In Nation
For Failing to Keep Patients Informed About Bad Doctors
State Medical Boards Urged to Improve Public Access to Disciplinary
Records And Require Physicians on Probation to Tell Patients
YONKERS, NY — A Consumer Reports review of medical board websites in all 50 states and the District of Columbia found that Alaska earned one of the lowest ratings in the country for failing to provide the public easy access to the disciplinary records of doctors licensed to practice in the state. As a result, Alaskans face a challenging time finding out whether their doctor has been put on probation for misconduct, made malpractice payouts, or been convicted of crimes.
“Patients have a right to know whether their doctor has been disciplined for bad behavior, especially when it could endanger their health,” said Lisa McGiffert, Director of Consumer Reports’ Safe Patient Project. “But Alaska makes it very hard to find out if a doctor practicing in the state has a history of harming patients or putting them at risk.”
The review of medical board websites is featured in “What You Don’t Know About Your Doctor Could Hurt You,” the cover story of the latest issue of Consumer Reports. The article highlights some of the challenges patients face when checking up on doctors and includes tips for helping consumers find a good physician and what to do if they have been harmed during treatment.
Medical boards are state government agencies responsible for licensing and disciplining doctors and investigating complaints about them. While most doctors have clean records, thousands of doctors around the country have been put on probation by state medical boards for a variety of offenses, including sexual misconduct, drug and alcohol abuse, overprescribing controlled substances, and other unprofessional or dangerous practices. Most of these doctors are allowed to continue seeing patients.
In addition, doctors can be disciplined by the hospitals where they work for misconduct or by federal regulatory and law enforcement agencies for such offenses as Medicare fraud, abusing prescription drugs, or drug related crimes. Doctors who harm patients also can be the subject of malpractice suits.
Consumer Reports and the Informed Patient Institute, a nonprofit group that provides consumers with information about healthcare quality and cost, analyzed medical board websites to see whether they provided easy access to complete information about doctors, rating them on a scale of 1 to 100. The Alaska State Medical Board’s website received a score of 32, among the lowest in the country.
- While the Alaska Medical Board’s website allows users to search by name and location for information about a particular doctor, its homepage does not clearly indicate where to go to conduct that search. Instead of having a consumer-friendly “Look Up Your Doctor” link on the home page, it features a “License Search” link, which many users may not understand as the pathway to look up a doctor’s disciplinary history.
- The website got positive marks for providing basic information on its physician profiles, such as the doctor’s full name, license number, and the status of their license. But it doesn’t provide other important information such as the doctor’s specialty, where they went to medical school, and whether they hold licenses in other states where they might have disciplinary histories.
- The website provides a plain language explanation on its website on how to submit a complaint about a doctor, but it does not enable users to submit one online or make it clear how soon a complaint needs to be submitted to the Board after a patient encounters misconduct.
- The Alaska Medical Board received good marks for enabling users of its website to download a list of all disciplinary actions taken by the Board against doctors since 1985, listed in chronological order. The list is quite informative, including the date, type and reason for the action, as well as restrictions to doctors’ licenses. However, this same information is not included in each physician’s profile, which it should be.
- Finally, the Alaska Medical Board received poor marks for not posting a doctor profile on its website that provides a full picture of each licensed doctor’s history, including information about disciplinary actions against the doctor taken by hospitals and the federal government, and malpractice payouts. However, it got positive marks for providing information about whether doctors licensed in the state have been convicted of any crimes.
To help ensure patients can find out whether their doctor has a history of misconduct more easily, Consumers Union urged all state medical boards to adopt a number of reforms to help make their websites more consumer-friendly, including:
- Use easily understandable search terms on medical board home pages and eye catching graphics to help consumers quickly find doctor-specific information.
- Include a plain language summary of any disciplinary actions taken by the medical board on a physician’s profile that includes the date, reason, duration, and restrictions tied to the order, as well as links to documents with more detailed information.
- In addition to board disciplinary orders, provide more comprehensive information on all physicians, including information about malpractice lawsuits, disciplinary actions taken by hospitals and federal agencies, and criminal convictions.
- Allow the public to file complaints online and provide clear information about how complaints are handled, including expected time frames and when and how the complainant will be notified of the outcome.
While these kinds of website improvements will make it easier for consumers to check up on their doctors, Consumers Union has urged medical boards to require doctors on probation to inform their patients. “The onus shouldn’t be on patients to investigate their physicians,” said McGiffert. “Doctors on probation should be required to tell their patients of their status.” A Consumer Reports survey found that 82 percent of consumers are in favor of requiring doctors to tell their patients if they are on probation and why.
At the national level, Consumer Reports has advocated for the National Practitioners Data Bank, a federal repository that includes information about disciplinary actions taken by state medical boards, hospitals, as well as malpractice payments, to be open to the public. Only hospitals, doctors, law enforcement, insurance companies, and a few other select groups are currently granted access. Medical boards should also have free access to the Data Bank when checking on licensed doctors.
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