Doctors board falling behind, report says


A board set up by lawmakers two years ago to oversee doctors has made some progress but still takes too long to investigate complaints about poor medical care, according to state auditors.

In a new report, the Department of Legislative Services recommends that the Maryland Board of Physicians continue to oversee about 17,000 practicing doctors in Maryland.

But auditors warned that the 21-member board is having trouble handling growing numbers of complaints, mostly lodged by patients accusing doctors of misdeeds, such as "immoral or unprofessional conduct" or incompetence.

Auditors said that the board has been "hamstrung" by a lack of adequate staff to handle investigations of doctors and recommended raising pay to attract better applicants. While the board has 17 such positions, it has chronic problems filling the slots.

Despite the delays, auditors praised the board members, all volunteers appointed by the governor, for an "exceptionally strong commitment to their responsibilities" for judging their peers.

The audit "is very complimentary with regard to most of the work we do," said Dr. Harry C. Knipp, the board's chairman.

Another board member, while acknowledging that complaints take too long to wind through the board's system of hearings, said the panel is making progress.

"It looks to me like the board is working pretty hard and trying to improve the system," said Vice Chairman Dr. Habib A. Bhutta, a Laurel general surgeon.

The audit also criticized the board for excessive secrecy and recommended a change in state law to make physician disciplinary hearings public for the first time.

Legislators created the new board in 2003 amid concerns that the old Board of Medical Quality Assurance was failing to weed out bad practitioners. The law expanded the size of the board, adding more consumer members, and loosened standards for imposing punishments.

The Senate Education Health and Environmental Affairs Committee is scheduled to discuss the audit at a public hearing Tuesday.

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