Should doctors on professional probation have to notify their patients?

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The Medical Board of California  is scheduled to vote Friday on an administrative petition filed by Consumers Union that would require doctors placed on professional probation to notify their patients of their status.

The Medical Board's current guidelines require California physicians on probation to inform the hospital where they work and their malpractice insurer. But the guidelines don't require patient notification. 

"We believe most patients who are seeing those doctors have no idea that they’ve been disciplined and are under the scrutiny of the medical board," says Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumers Union's Safe Patient Project.  "We just believe people have the right to know how or whether doctors are on probation."

Statewide, she says, 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 Consumers Union petition asks the Medical Board to require physicians to tell patients about their probation when they call in for an appointment and provide every patient who comes to the office for treatment with a written disclosure about the probation that must be signed by the patient. Additionally, the doctor would be required to post in his office information about the probation - including the reasons for it and the terms governing it.

The California Medical Association, the professional group that represents about 40,000 doctors statewide, opposes the petition.

For one thing, probation does not indicate that a doctor might eventually face suspension or revocation of his license, says Association spokeswoman Molly Weedn.  

The Board might also require monitoring of the doctor's behavior. If the doctor meets the terms and conditions of his probation, the status is lifted after a time period determined by the Medical Board. 

The Medical Association is also concerned "that a requirement like this would put a burden on the doctor-patient relationship and would take time away from important patient appointments that - as we all know - are already limited," says Weedn.

"In addition to that," she says, "the information is already public. It's already available online, it can be accessed by anyone."

But Giffert disagrees. She says while the information is posted publicly on the Medical Board's website, "most people don’t know to go there and look it up."

And, she says, when it comes to many seniors and those who don't speak English proficiently, using a computer and navigating the state website may prove too difficult.

"It's not the easiest thing to do," McGiffert says, adding that the burden should be on the physician, not the patient.  

"The doctor is the one who is on probation because of certain behavior or consequences of their practice," she says, "and they should be required to disclose that information to their patients."

The Medical Board is scheduled to vote on the petition Friday in San Diego, during its quarterly meeting.

The vote will mark the second time in recent years  the Medical Board has been asked to consider the matter. In 2012, its staff recommended doctors on probation notify patients of their status. But the Medical Board - comprised of eight doctors and seven public members - voted down the proposal.