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

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

New law will reveal more on doctors

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW and GLENN HOWATT
  • Star Tribune
  • May 5, 2012 - 6:59 AM
The state board that regulates Minnesota's 20,000 physicians will provide consumers with more information about malpractice judgments and disciplinary actions taken against doctors by other states, under a bill signed into law Friday by Gov. Mark Dayton.

The law also requires the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice to work quickly on consumer complaints against doctors and to resolve or dismiss contested complaints within a year unless it "cannot be reasonably accomplished" in that period.

Currently, there is no formal deadline for board action on a contested complaint.

"Some of those complaints just linger and linger," said Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who helped push the legislation in the state Senate.

The law, which also applies to other state licensing boards that oversee health care workers, also requires board officials to "periodically" notify complainants of the status of their complaints.

"That to me is huge for the consumer," said Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who authored the House legislation that served as the blueprint for the law. "Through the testimony we heard, it was the lack of [the board's] responsiveness to complaints that really ticked people off."

Robert Leach, the board's executive director, said complaints that aren't contested typically are now dismissed or closed within 90 days. But, he added, there "are no rules" establishing a timeline for contested cases that involve an investigation.

Some of the changes spelled out in the law will take effect this year, while others won't be implemented until 2013 to give the board time to collect data and update its website, Kiffmeyer said.

The law comes three months after a Star Tribune investigation raised questions about the board's record for disciplining physicians and its lack of transparency in providing information about problem practitioners to the public.

The investigation showed that Minnesota lags behind many states in disclosing information on its website, including data on malpractice judgments or settlements. It also doesn't disclose whether doctors have been disciplined by regulators in other states or lost their privileges to work in hospitals and other facilities for surgical mistakes and other problems -- information provided in 13 states.

Board officials have said that the record reflects a philosophy of correcting problems rather than punishing doctors.

While the new law requires posting of malpractice judgments rendered by a judge or jury, it does not require the board to post information about malpractice settlements, which account for about 97 percent of malpractice payouts across the country over the past decade, according to the National Practitioner Data Bank, which tracks disciplinary actions against doctors.

An early version of the bill called for posting malpractice settlement information, but met with resistance from the Minnesota Medical Association, which represents about 10,000 doctors in the state.

Kiffmeyer said she dropped the language after concluding that malpractice data can be misleading -- settlements are sometimes encouraged by an insurer to avoid prolonged court battles and often are reached with no admission of negligence. She said posting settlements, details of which are usually confidential, could also harm a physician's reputation and do little to help the public distinguish good practitioners from the bad.

About 40 percent of all doctors are sued at least once for malpractice, but less than a quarter are sued twice or more, according to the American Medical Association.

The law also calls for a task force study of the state Medical Practice Act to "ensure that it effectively protects the safety and well-being of the citizens," and a state legislative audit of the Board of Medical Practice to evaluate its performance.

Results of those studies, along with recommendations for developing a uniform process and standard for conducting criminal background checks by all health boards, will be presented to legislators in 2013.

richm@startribune.com • 612-673-4425 howatt@startribune.com • 612-673-7192

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