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NY discipline agency not coping with surge in licensees, report finds

The doctor population in New York State is growing 18 times faster than the general population, and the discipline reporting system is not keeping up, according to a May report by the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), “Questionable Doctors: Negligent Doctors and the Failure of New York State to Notify Patients.”

In the past ten years, New York’s population has grown by about 2%, while the doctor population has increased by 36%. The Office of Professional Medical Conduct (OPMC) has not kept pace with this astounding increase, NYPIRG says. It reports that the Health Department has failed to update annual figures on OPMC’s physician discipline activities. The most recent report covers activity in 2010.

The NYPIRG report asserts that the lack of proper enforcement of disciplinary action and keeping track of records and databases of physicians who have been disciplined threatens patient care. More than 77% of doctors sanctioned for negligence by OPMC were allowed to continue to practice, but NYPIRG says that because of OPMC reporting lapses, “it is highly unlikely that [the patients of these physicians] are aware of their physician’s punishment.”

OPMC itself is not initiating the majority of disciplinary actions that it reports, NYPIRG notes. Nearly 60% of New York state actions against physicians were based on sanctions taken by other states, the federal government, or the courts, not directly based on an OPMC investigation.

“Very few of New York State’s doctors ever face a serious disciplinary action,” NYPIRG’s report says. ” The 468 completed actions taken by OPMC in 2013 must be judged in light of the staggering number of patients harmed by negligent medical annually.”

When estimates of patient harm are expanded to include general medical practice outside of the hospital, the potential harm by physicians is even greater, NYPIRG says. A study of surgical errors in physicians’ offices, for example, found that were patients were ten times more likely to be harmed due to medical errors than when they had the same surgery in more highly regulated health care facilities.

To better keep track of physicians and keep the public safe, NYPIRG offers several recommendations:

  • Allow the public easy access to a doctor’s background information via the physician profiles program, and promptly notify patients if their physician has had any limitation placed on their license. “All patients of physicians who have had any limitation placed on their license must be notified in a timely matter,” NYPIRG advocates.
  • Create a consumer assistance office operated by the OPMC to manage the complaint process. According to NYPIRG, there is currently no requirement that patients be informed that their doctor has been given a sanction and/or limitations.
  • Require physicians by law, not merely their ethics code, to tell the patient or patient’s family when a medical error has occurred. This would ensure a more stringent and prophylactic environment for patients, NYPIRG maintains.
  • Impose a standard requirement of re-certification for physicians to check that doctor’s skills haven’t diminished and their medical knowledge is current and accurate.