Georgia lags in disciplining doctors

The Georgia Composite Medical Board meets in 2017. A new report says the panel imposes serious penalties against physicians less often than almost any other medical regulatory body in the country.
The Georgia Composite Medical Board meets in 2017. A new report says the panel imposes serious penalties against physicians less often than almost any other medical regulatory body in the country.

Credit: Special

Credit: Special

New report ranks state 49th for protecting patients

Georgia ranks near the bottom nationally for imposing serious disciplinary actions on its licensed physicians, leaving patients vulnerable to incompetent, impaired or abusive physicians, a new report has found.

Only New Hampshire and the District of Columbia had lower rates of serious discipline imposed by medical licensing boards than Georgia did between 2017 and 2019, according to a study being released Wednesday by Public Citizen, a national consumer advocacy organization. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained an advance copy of the report.

“The people in Georgia are being endangered by doctors who in other states would either have lost their license or had severe restrictions on it,” Dr. Sidney Wolfe, founder and senior adviser of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, said in an interview.

The new report reinforces findings last year in a state audit that criticized the Georgia Composite Medical Board for rarely punishing the state’s doctors. Investigations by the Journal-Constitution have also revealed that Georgia hesitates to impose serious consequences against doctors found to sexually abuse patients or improperly prescribe medications.

CONTINUING COVERAGE
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution brought light to Georgia’s often secretive medical board in 2016 with its series Doctors & Sex Abuse, a national investigation into lax punishment for physicians who molested, assaulted or harassed patients. The series, which won several national awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is online at doctors.ajc.com.

Public Citizen said there’s no evidence that rates of discipline vary because one state’s physicians are less like to be “incompetent or miscreant” than physicians in other states. The rates instead reflect differences in how states handle dangerous doctors, the report said.

“The inevitable conclusion is that Georgia’s medical board is not really vigorously upholding the state Medical Practice Act, which is what they are obligated to enforce, and as a result, Georgia is almost at the bottom,” Wolfe said. “The board really needs some oversight.”

The medical board, which licenses physicians and regulates the practice of medicine in Georgia, declined to comment, saying it had not yet seen the report.

ExploreAJC investigation: Doctors & Sex Abuse

Public Citizen defined “serious disciplinary actions” by medical licensing boards as actions that had consequences for the physician’s ability to practice, such as license revocations, suspensions, restrictions and voluntary surrenders while under investigation. Georgia had about 37,000 licensed physicians in 2018 and imposed an average of 12 serious disciplinary actions annually during the three-year period studied, the report found.

Kentucky had the nation’s highest rate of physician discipline, the report found. To equal that top state’s rate, Georgia would have to up its serious disciplinary actions by more than 600 percent.

ExploreFrom November: Georgia medical board rarely disciplines doctors, audit confirms

The Georgia Composite Medical Board is a 16-member body composed of 13 physicians, two consumer members, and one physician assistant in a non-voting advisory role. The board’s makeup doesn’t comply with a national standard that 25 percent of a board’s membership be public members who are not affiliated with the medical profession.

The state audit said the lack of consumer members may contribute to the board’s low rate of discipline. The audit found that 98% of the board’s investigations are closed without formal disciplinary action.

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The Georgia General Assembly took action in recent weeks that could address some of the concerns with the passage of House Bill 458, which would require the state’s physicians and medical board members to be trained on physician sexual misconduct. Doctors would also be required to report other doctors who have sexually abused patients. The board itself would be required to report on its handling of sex abuse cases. If the House agrees to slight changes made by the Senate, the bill will advance to Gov. Brian Kemp.

The Georgia board asked for the legislation as part of a national effort by the Federation of State Medical Boards to better protect patients from sex abuse.

Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, a co-sponsor of HB 458, said he wants to know more about the board’s handling of cases.

“The question I have is whether this is an accurate rating, which means Georgia’s doctors have exceptionally low rates of misconduct, or is the medical board not adequately addressing issues that should result in discipline?” Holcomb said. “If it’s the latter, then that’s a problem that must be addressed.”

Continuing coverage

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution brought light to Georgia’s often secretive medical board in 2016 with its series Doctors & Sex Abuse, a national investigation into lax punishment for physicians who molested, assaulted or harassed patients. The series, which won several national awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is online at doctors.ajc.com.

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