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California and the West

More Data About Doctors Now on Internet

Medicine: Under new law, background and disciplinary information is disclosed on state medical board's Web site.

January 18, 1998|MARCIDA DODSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Want the skinny on your doctor? It's just a click of the mouse away.

Under a new state law, the public can find information on the Internet about doctors' histories that until Jan. 1 had been kept private.

The information is at http://www.medbd.ca.gov. The Web site can reveal disciplinary actions by hospitals--recommended by fellow doctors--as well as all court and private judgments against physicians, even if the Medical Board of California has not acted against the doctors.

The new law makes California one of the most open states for disclosure of physician information, authorities said.

For example, if a hospital has terminated or revoked a doctor's privileges (meaning the physician is no longer allowed to treat patients there), that information now is available.

Also, the public can find out whether a physician has paid any arbitration awards or monetary judgments ordered by a judge or jury.

This new information is in addition to other physician background data that has been available through the medical board's Web site for eight months.

However, the information is brief. Take the example of Dr. Patrick Chavis of Lynwood. The site reveals that the medical board has suspended his license and filed an accusation (equivalent to a charge), that he has not yet had a hearing or been found guilty of any charges, and that his staff privileges were revoked by Suburban Medical Center in Paramount. But it does not reveal what he is accused of.

Chavis was accused by the medical board last year of seriously injuring two patients and keeping them at different times in his own home, and of abandoning a third patient--groggy from liposuction surgery--in his office. That patient later died at a Lynwood hospital. The physician has denied the allegation of gross negligence.

The law making the information public was sponsored by Assemblywoman Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont), who has championed other consumer-oriented, health-related legislation.

"For years, we've had consumer groups pushing to receive this kind of information," Figueroa said. "With California being one of the largest states in managed care, patients shouldn't have such limited information about their doctors."

The California Medical Assn. opposed some provisions of the original bill but, after revisions, supported the legislation.

"If we can find ways to help the public pick their doctors, assuming they have a choice anymore, with all the HMOs, we are open to that," said Steven Thompson, the medical association's vice president for government.

Physicians have long argued that peer review at hospitals must be confidential, that doctors would be loath to judge the performance of colleagues if their decisions became public and exposed them to lawsuits. But critics have argued that keeping such actions private has allowed bad doctors to merely switch hospitals.

"We still want to make sure doctors have some confidentiality with the hospitals," Figueroa said. For example, lesser disciplinary actions will remain private, allowing erring physicians to seek help or improve their performance, she said.

"We just want to know the most egregious ones, the situations that could be harmful to patients," she said.

Hospitals have been required to send the state medical board notice of such discipline against doctors for years so the board could investigate. But the public cannot depend solely on that, Figueroa said, because the medical board has long been unable to investigate all the cases. And the process is time-consuming, she said.

"And in the meantime, the patients don't know about it," Figueroa added.

The issue goes back to the early 1990s, when the only information the board would disclose was its own actions, even though it was collecting other information about malpractice judgments, criminal convictions and hospital discipline, she said.

At the time, the board had so few investigators that it was able to take few disciplinary actions. Meanwhile, the backlog of complaints was mounting.

After a 1993 investigation of the agency by the California Highway Patrol found that hundreds of complaints against doctors had been dismissed or destroyed, the board decided to disclose to the public the new information. It includes malpractice awards of more than $30,000, felony convictions and serious hospital disciplinary actions. The last category, opposed by the medical board at the time, was nullified by a state office that reviews agencies' compliance with state laws. With the new law, AB103, those reports are now disclosed to the public.

However, under the law, malpractice lawsuits that are settled before trial, as most are, will not be disclosed. That provides a "huge incentive" for doctors to settle, said Julie D'Angelo Fellmeth, administrative director of the Center for Public Interest Law in San Diego.

Fellmeth said it is important for the public to know if their doctors have a pattern of being sued for malpractice.

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