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California rejects call to force doctors on probation to inform patients

Katherine Streeter for NPR

The Medical Board of California voted Friday to reject a petition filed by Consumers Union that would have required all doctors placed on professional probation to notify their patients of that status, although the board also agreed to continue considering the issue.  

After the vote during the board’s quarterly meeting in San Diego, members voted to create a task force to investigate further some of the issues raised by Consumers Union, said board spokeswoman Susan Wolbarst.

"In general [the board members] weren't comfortable with requiring every doctor on probation to inform their patients," said Consumers Union's Safe Patient Project Director Lisa McGiffert, who testified at the meeting. "But I feel like we have an opening to further discussions about getting doctors with the most serious problems to inform their patients." 

Statewide, nearly 500 of the state's more than 100,000 physicians are on professional probation for a variety of offenses, including gross negligence, incompetence, sexual misconduct and substance abuse. 

The medical board's current guidelines require doctors on probation to inform the hospital where they work and their malpractice insurer about their status, but the guidelines don't require notification of patients.  

McGiffert said she was pleased the board voted to review its website in an effort to make it more consumer-friendly. While a doctor's disciplinary record is available to any member of the public who wishes to research it on the agency's "verify a license" link,  consumer advocates say it's challenging to navigate. 

In addition, "most consumers don’t know what [verify a license] means," argued McGiffert. "They certainly wouldn't think it means, 'look up your doctor here.'" 

The Consumers Union petition asked the Medical Board to require physicians to tell patients about their probation when they call in for an appointment and to provide every patient they treat with a written disclosure about the probation that must be signed by the patient. Additionally, the petition called for the doctor to post in his office information about the probation - including the reasons for it and the terms governing it.

The California Medical Association opposed the petition. That group, which represents about 40,000 doctors statewide, contends that requiring doctors on probation to inform patients about their status is unnecessary - as the information is already available to the public online. It also says such notification requirements would unduly burden the doctor-patient relationship. 

The Association had no comment on Friday's vote.