The Medical Board of California should soon have to answer for its failure to properly investigate accusations that a doctor's negligence harmed or killed a patient.
It would be unthinkable to decide the merits of a rape case without collecting evidence and interviewing both the victim and the accused. It is equally inconceivable that the Medical Board would close a complaint involving potentially life-threatening negligence after a medical expert gets only the doctor’s side of the story. Yet that appears to be the outcome of too many patient complaints to the Board.
We have interviewed dozens of patients and family members who say that their complaint was dismissed even though they were never contacted by the Medical Board to discuss the case. The Board closes most complaints before ever referring them for further investigation.
The medical experts who review complaints are instructed that there is a high bar for the Board to prove negligence. But experts shouldn't be deciding cases without all of the facts in front of them, and should definitely not be closing cases based on data provided solely by the medical professionals accused in the case.
Many families also have stories of negligence in which medical records were added to or altered after the fact to protect doctors who caused harm. Factual disputes such as these should not be resolved unilaterally in favor of the doctor being investigated. A clear dispute about the facts of a case should also be grounds for the Medical Board to dig deeper.
The Board’s handling of consumer complaints has been rated poor to very poor by 88% of survey respondents, according to the Medical Board. Though these numbers may have no statistical weight (because not enough people responded) they paint a dramatic and discouraging picture of a complaint process that does not work for anyone except the doctors it is charged with investigating. The Board insinuates that this rate of dissatisfaction is acceptable, because bereaved family members or harmed individuals will never be satisfied. Yet there is something deeply wrong if the process is not responsive to the consumers it is supposed to serve.
The Medical Board's charter is up for review in the Legislature at the end of this month. When a doctor’s negligence may be costing lives, complaints deserve thorough investigation not routine dismissal. At minimum, the legislature should require the Board to interview the person harmed or the person who submit the complaint, obtain records directly from both the complainant and the doctor, and should be prohibited from closing any investigation when the basic facts of the case are in dispute.