Is Your Doctor Hiding Something From You?

A bill that would require medical practitioners to notify their patients if they are on probation for serious infractions moved forward Monday after winning approval from a California senate committee.

The Committee on Business, Professions and Economic Development voted unanimously to green light the legislation, written by Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo). It would require physicians, chiropractors, podiatrists and acupuncturists to inform their patients of their probation before an appointment.

Under current law, clinicians are required to notify hospitals and malpractice insurers when they’re placed on probation. Patients do not have to be told, though they can find the information themselves on the California Medical Board’s BreEZe website.

California state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) speaking at a news conference in Sacramento about a bill he authored that would require medical practitioners to notify patients if they are on probation. (Ana Ibarra/California Healthline)

California state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) speaking at a news conference in Sacramento about a bill he authored that would require medical practitioners to notify patients if they are on probation. (Ana Ibarra/California Healthline)

However, consumer advocates said the site is too difficult to navigate, especially for older people who may not be tech savvy. It also creates a barrier for those without internet access, they added.

Hill’s bill would require providers to notify patients in writing if they have been placed on probation by the medical board, osteopathic board, podiatry board, acupuncture board or Board of Chiropractic Examiners for serious offenses that could compromise their ability to practice safely and competently. These include: gross negligence, sexual misconduct, substance abuse or a felony conviction related to patient care, Hill said.

If approved, the bill would go into effect July 1, 2018, and would apply to physicians on probation at that time and going forward.

The Medical Board of California has the power to investigate and discipline doctors. If it places physicians on probation, they may continue to practice under certain conditions, if the Medical Board determines it is safe.

Sen. Hill and supporters of the bill said patients should have a say, too. Too often, probation is virtually a free pass for doctors facing disciplinary action, Hill said in the hearing.

The California Medical Association, arguing in opposition to the bill, said that as written it would undermine physicians’ due process rights and amount to a de facto suspension by severely restricting doctors’ ability to practice.

According to Consumers Union, a nonprofit advocacy organization, about 500 of the approximately 102,000 licensed physicians actively practicing in California as of Sept. 29, 2015 were on probation for a variety of offenses.

The organization supports notifying patients of doctors’ probationary status. Last year, it circulated a petition that asked for a similar notification process as the one the bill proposes. The petition was denied, although the Medical Board did agree to establish a task force to further examine certain elements of the petition.

The California medical board could not be reached for comment Monday.

Last month, Consumer Reports published an analysis of all the medical board websites across the U.S. In the report, the California Medical Board’s site got the highest rating for accessibility. In compiling its ratings, the magazine looked at search capabilities, complaints, board information and doctor-identifying information, among other factors.

The analysis did find, however that even in California getting this information meant searching through lengthy documents and legal jargon.

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In addition, the Consumer Reports analysis, which it called a “deep dive” into California data, yielded a list of doctors on probation for such behavior as practicing under the influence  of alcohol or drugs and negligence that resulted in egregious treatment.

Hill noted that only a small pool of professionals would be affected by this bill, but it could help save thousands of patients from landing in the hands of the wrong practitioner, he said.

Tina Minasian, a Roseville, Calif., resident who had a botched surgery in 2002, still suffers the consequences. She said knowing about her plastic surgeon’s history of drug and alcohol abuse would have helped her avoid the pain she lives with.  She spoke at the hearing Monday in favor of the bill.

Minasian said she went in for a standard tummy tuck, but instead the surgeon performed a “circumferential surgery,” making an incision along the entire circumference of her torso.

Minasian said the operation left her with open bleeding and an infection. Nearly 14 years later, she still feels pain. The surgeon’s license was revoked in 2009.

“I will be forever reminded of how this doctor harmed me,” Minasian said. Had something like this bill been in existence, she added, “I would have been informed and I wouldn’t have chosen him.”

The bill will be sent next to the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

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