How Public are Complaints Against Physicians?

Patients rely on the integrity and competence of physicians to safely administer medical treatment, medications, and advice.  Whenever a patient experiences an unexpected response to treatment, or a seemingly curt dismissal of request for specific medication or treatment recommendations that the patient found during web searches, a patient can sometimes be left wondering if the care they received was appropriately administered.  Filing a complaint against a physician is easy and, by design, requires no medical knowledge to complete.

Striking a balance between a patient’s right to file a complaint and a physician’s right to due process, with the assumption of innocence, can be tricky.  Most complaints are dismissed with no formal actions taken. They generally are the result of communication failure.  Nevertheless, complaints cannot be ignored.  When complaints cannot immediately be resolved, they proceed to peer review phase. If a physician is the recipient of a complaint, the physician must file a carefully prepared written response that gives context to the complaint and provides any documentation that corroborates and supports a defense against the complaint.  To safeguard a physician’s right to due process, it is highly recommended that physicians seek legal advice in preparing their response to a complaint. If the complaint investigation confirms a violation of the Medical Practice Act, the Board of Medicine has the authority to impose disciplinary actions that range from a written reprimand to a complete revocation of the physician’s medical license.  The Board can require physicians named in complaints to appear for an Administrative Hearing before deciding what action(s) the Board will take.  Because there can be serious consequences following a Board review, and imposed disciplinary actions will be information that is available to the public, physicians should also consider legal representation at Board hearings.

Each state’s Board of Medicine has protocols by which complaints are investigated, disciplinary actions are taken, and the level of public disclosure is determined.  For instance, in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C., complaints filed against physicians, consistent with the assumption of innocence, are not made public, while disciplinary actions in those same jurisdictions are shared with the public.  In both Maryland and Virginia, complaints against physicians are shared with other state boards, while the District of Columbia Board of Medicine does not.

Since 2008, about 4,000 of the 1 million plus physicians in the United States have been disciplined each year.  Of those 4,000 physicians, approximately 700 are placed on probation pending some form of remediation, with an unrestricted license restored within a few years.  Only about 250 physicians a year have their licenses revoked permanently. The vast majority of physicians who are disciplined each year, are issued administrative actions and/or reprimands.  If any action results in a suspension of a physician’s license for more than 30 days or there is any negative action taken by the review board against the physician, it must be reported to the National Practitioner Data Base (NPDB). 

Since 2009, the NPDB reports that over 1,600 physician licensure actions were taken in Maryland.  Of these actions, 20% (343) involved probations and 28% (471) involved reprimands or censures.  The NPDB does not share physician disciplinary actions with members of the public.  This national level repository of medical malpractice payments and adverse physician licensure actions is available only to eligible entities such as hospitals and state boards of medicine.

Currently state Boards of Medicine, including Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C., post and archive disciplinary actions taken against physicians on their websites.  In Maryland, pursuant to Maryland Health Occupations Code § 14-411.1. (2), disciplinary actions are posted for the most recent 10-year period, while in the District of Columbia all actions taken against physicians remain permanently accessible on the board’s website.

Transparency is here to stay.  Consumers are unwavering in their march toward gaining control over their own health.  As smart phones, internet, and Wi-Fi connectivity become more prevalent, researching diseases, cures, and physicians has become common place.  State Boards of Medicine throughout the United States continue to enhance user-friendly access to their websites.  It takes only a few clicks to pull up a specific physician’s records.  Although the level of information available on each state’s site may vary, they all provide records of disciplinary actions taken against physicians.

Although filing a complaint is more likely than not to be the result of differing expectations and communication failures, the stakes are high for physicians who do not recognize the risks complaints pose to their professional reputations.  The failure to properly respond to a complaint can result in a judgment against the physician that will follow that physician for the remainder of his/her career, regardless of how trivial the complaint may have been. 

For questions about this article or any other health care law related matter, please contact an attorney in our Health Care Law practice group.