arguing that extra public scrutiny could pressure state medical boards to be more aggressive watchdogs.
Public Citizen’s report includes an analysis of how frequently medical boards sanctioned physicians in 2019, 2020, and 2021. These sanctions include license revocations, suspensions, voluntary surrenders of licenses, and limitations on practice while under investigation.
The report used data from the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), a federal repository of reports about state licensure, discipline, and certification actions as well as medical malpractice payments. The database is closed to the public, but hospitals, malpractice insurers, and investigators can query it.
According to Public Citizen’s calculations, states most likely to take serious disciplinary action against physicians were:
- Michigan: 1.74 serious disciplinary actions per 1,000 physicians per year
- Ohio: 1.61
- North Dakota: 1.60
- Colorado: 1.55
- Arizona: 1.53
- The states least likely to do so were:
- Nevada: 0.24 serious disciplinary actions per 1,000 physicians per year
- New Hampshire: 0.25
- Georgia: 0.27
- Indiana: 0.28
- Nebraska: 0.32
- California, the largest U.S. state by both population and number of physicians, landed near the middle, ranking 27th with a rate of 0.83 serious actions per 1,000 physicians, Public Citizen said.
“There is no evidence that physicians in any state are, overall, more or less likely to be incompetent or miscreant than the physicians in any other state,” said Robert Oshel, PhD, a former NPDB associate director for research and an author of the report.
The differences instead reflect variations in boards’ enforcement of medical practice laws, domination of licensing boards by physicians, and inadequate budgets, he noted.
Public Citizen said Congress should change federal law to let members of the public get information from the NPDB to do a background check on physicians whom they are considering seeing or are already seeing. This would not only help individuals but also would spur state licensing boards to do their own checks with the NPDB, the group said.
“If licensing boards routinely queried the NPDB, they would not be faulted by the public and state legislators for not knowing about malpractice payments or disciplinary actions affecting their licensees and therefore not taking reasonable actions concerning their licensees found to have poor records,” the report said.
Questioning NPDB access for consumers
Michelle Mello, JD, PhD, a professor of law and health policy at Stanford (Calif.) University, has studied the current applications of the NPDB. In 2019, she published an article in The New England Journal of Medicine examining changes in practice patterns for clinicians who faced multiple malpractice claims.
Dr. Mello questioned what benefit consumers would get from direct access to the NPDB’s information.
“It provides almost no context for the information it reports, making it even harder for patients to make sense of what they see there,” Dr. Mello said in an interview.
Hospitals are already required to routinely query the NPDB. This legal requirement should be expanded to include licensing boards, which the report called “the last line of defense for the public from incompetent and miscreant physicians,” Public Citizen said.
“Ideally, this amendment should include free continuous query access by medical boards for all their licensees,” the report said. “In the absence of any action by Congress, individual state legislatures should require their licensing boards to query all their licensees or enroll in continuous query, as a few states already do.”
The Federation of State Medical Boards agreed with some of the other suggestions Public Citizen offered in the report. The two concur on the need for increased funding to state medical boards to ensure that they have adequate resources and staffing to fulfill their duties, FSMB said in a statement.
But FSMB disagreed with Public Citizens’ approach to ranking boards, saying it could mislead. The report lacks context about how boards’ funding and authority vary, Humayun Chaudhry, DO, FSMB’s chief executive officer, said. He also questioned the decision to focus only on serious disciplinary actions.
“The Public Citizen report does not take into account the wide range of disciplinary steps boards can take such as letters of reprimand or fines, which are often enough to stop problem behaviors – preempting further problems in the future,” Dr. Chaudhry said.