Editorial: Medical board fails quality examination

  • Article by: STAR TRIBUNE EDITORIAL BOARD
  • Updated: February 25, 2012 - 5:10 PM

Legislators should address transparency, discipline issues.

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Robert Leach serves as the executive director of the 16-member Minnesota Board of Medical Practice. The board held one of its quarterly board meetings Saturday, January 14, 2012, in Minneapolis. The quarterly meetings are open to the public.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Minnesota is home to world-class medical centers and providers. Legislators have work to do to ensure that the state Board of Medical Practice, which oversees the state's 20,000 physicians, is operating on the same elite plane.

An important Star Tribune investigation recently raised disturbing questions about whether this 16-member board is doing everything it can to protect the public. In a two-day series earlier this month, reporters Glenn Howatt and Richard Meryhew found that the panel "often shies away from punishing doctors whose mistakes harm patients or demonstrate a pattern of substandard care."

Forty-six doctors who were disciplined in other states did not face action in Minnesota. The board also did not discipline a majority of the 74 doctors whose privileges were suspended or revoked by state medical centers or clinics in the past 10 years.

In addition, Minnesota's board lags many states in providing information to consumers who want to check on their doctors' competency. That's embarrassing for a state often lauded as a health care pioneer. And it's unacceptable in this dawning era of consumer-driven medicine. How can patients burdened with big-dollar deductibles make informed choices about quality, cost-efficient care?

To be fair, the board must operate within legal restraints about what information it can make public. It also has a differing philosophy than many other states, emphasizing corrective action for doctors over discipline -- an approach that likely shaped its dead-last finish in an advocacy group's 2010 ranking of doctor discipline rates by state. That ranking is a cause for concern, but may also reflect the state's overall quality of care, which consistently ranks near the top in surveys.

Readers shouldn't conclude that Minnesota has a bad board, but it clearly hasn't moved as aggressively as some states to improve its transparency or evaluate how it could better protect the public.

Minnesota lawmakers are now stepping in to do what some other states' medical boards have already pushed for: legislation that allows and speeds access to greater information about physicians -- such as info from others states' disciplinary actions or information from malpractice cases.

Republican Rep. Jim Abeler is drafting a bill to provide more comprehensive background information -- not just about physicians, but about many other providers. Republican Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer and DFL State Sen. Terri Bonoff have also provided strong leadership, asking tough questions of board officials at two recent hearings.

A good idea being given strong consideration is having an outside group evaluate the board's practices. The Federation of State Medical Boards could provide this. Minnesota's Office of the Legislative Auditor is also an option. A thorough review is overdue and could pinpoint changes to allow Minnesota not only to equal other states' practices but to improve on them.

The Star Tribune series put a welcome spotlight on an important but under-the-radar organization with an essential responsibility: safeguarding Minnesotans who seek medical care. Lawmakers should seize this opportunity to ensure that the state has the leading-edge medical board it deserves.

  • FEDERAL REVIEW

    In the wake of stories in three newspapers, including the Star Tribune, three U.S. senators have asked federal health officials to review the way state medical boards regulate the nation's physicians. The letter was signed by Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa; Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Max Baucus, D-Montana.

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