Confidential warnings outnumber public sanctions

December 19, 2005|By FRED SCHULTE | FRED SCHULTE,SUN REPORTER

In resolving complaints about doctors, Maryland's medical licensing board is more likely to issue confidential warnings than impose public sanctions, state records show.

The Board of Physicians has broad power to punish doctors for about 40 types of infractions, ranging from immoral conduct to incompetence. The board can suspend a doctor's license, revoke it or impose probation and fines.

In fiscal year 2005, which ended June 30, the board publicly sanctioned 48 doctors and levied $74,500 in fines.

Public orders of discipline are posted as part of a doctor's profile on the board's Web site (www.mbp.state.md.us).

But the board resolved nearly twice as many complaints by issuing warnings to doctors, which are kept secret under state law. Because such cases are hidden from view, there is no way for the public to know the nature of the complaints.

While the board would not disclose records showing the types of complaints involved, its chairman, Dr. Harry C. Knipp, characterized most of the "advisory opinions" as minor in nature and said many turn on record-keeping problems or issues such as rudeness. They have increased greatly under his watch, Knipp said, because he has made it a point to step in and warn doctors as an "expression of irritation."

The Board of Physicians discloses some information about these cases in annual reports to the General Assembly. In its report for 2003, the board noted examples such as "concerns about prescribing practices," "how to properly complete a breast exam" and the "threshold for treating a child with breathing difficulties."

These are cases that don't "rise to the level" of a full investigation, said C. Irving Pinder Jr., the board's executive director.

During fiscal year 2003, the board issued 53 advisory opinions. In fiscal 2004, the panel issued 102 warnings, for the first time exceeding its public disciplinary actions. The number fell slightly, to 94 in fiscal 2005, but exceeded the number of public sanctions, records show.

The confidential warnings are not reported to a federal databank that tracks punishments imposed by state licensing boards. Most HMOs and some hospitals consult the federal system, called the National Practitioner Data Bank, to screen doctors and check their credentials.

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