Florida’s doctor discipline system not tough enough, critics say

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As a Florida-licensed attorney who spent 15 years working in consumer justice law firms in the ‘Sunshine State,’ I keep a watchful eye on trends and developments within various personal injury practice areas in Florida.  There is currently a real, legitimate concern regarding the system that is responsible for disciplining doctors who are licensed to practice medicine in Florida.  The Orlando Sentinel recently published an article how some believe there is much to be desired when it comes to how the  Florida Department of Health handles these matters.  

Consumer group Public Citizen last month ranked Florida the eighth most-lenient in the nation for disciplining doctors. The ranking stems from the number of serious actions per 1,000 doctors last year, when the state revoked the licenses of 94 and suspended 18 others. The toughest state disciplined doctors at rates three times as high. The trend has been true for a decade, the group said.

Critics contend the state does not act fast enough or toughly enough against the small share of practitioners accused of substandard care, negligence, crimes or improper behavior. Too often, they say, the state lets professionals such as Lan continue practicing while officials probe allegations of crimes or serious violations and injuries.

Regulators dismiss 90 percent of complaints that patients or others file against practitioners, more than 95 percent of those against doctors. When action is taken, the state rarely imposes serious punishments, such as revoking or suspending licenses.

There is ‘the other side’ of the story.  According to the article, some of the advocates for the way the system works take the following position:

State officials and some attorneys defend the system and say the criticisms are overstated. They say any system can be improved, but contend the state focuses on protecting the public from professionals who commit the most serious wrongs, and demands remedial training for professionals who make errors.

“I don’t see the evidence to support [the criticism]. We believe we are doing a good job,” said Lucy Gee, the health department’s director of medical quality assurance.

Gee said the process moves deliberately so it can be thorough. Cases remain secret because laws aim to keep baseless complaints from becoming public and unfairly tarnishing professionals, she said.

What about the doctors and individuals within the medical profession that repeatedly cause harm to patients or are charged with serious crimes (felonies) but are permitted to continue practicing medicine?  What about these same individuals within the profession, who do not receive ANY form of discipline whatsoever, or are allowed to continue practicing, while the investigation against them is pending. Here are just a few examples of such real world cases:

Dr. Stuart F. Tillman, a Tallahassee anesthesiologist arrested in July and charged with soliciting sex online from a police officer posing as a girl of 14.

Dr. Joseph M. Hernandez, formerly of Fort Lauderdale, who was arrested in Lake City in February and charged with trafficking narcotic pain pills and prescribing drugs for monetary gain. In 2006, records show the state banned him from doing surgery and temporarily suspended his license because his vision was severely impaired. In 2007, he was fined $5,000 for leaving part of an IV tube in a patient’s chest.

Dr. John N. Mubang, an internist in the Tampa suburb of Seffner who was arrested and charged in July 2008 with drug trafficking and prescribing controlled substances for monetary gain.

All three have pleaded not guilty, with trials pending. Hernandez and Mubang are practicing, according to their offices. Hernandez declined to comment. Mubang and Tillman could not be reached for comment, despite calls or messages left at their offices.

What does this say about the system that disciplines doctors in Florida?  Sure, there are many great doctors in Florida, but for the ones who put their patients’ lives at risk (through negligent treatment or otherwise) or are charged with serious crimes that may have an impact on their practice/medical license, the question remains: Would YOU want to have a surgical procedure performed by a doctor that has a criminal investigation pending against him or her that may land them in jail? I suspect you would prefer your doctor to be completely focused on your surgical procedure and not thinking about other ‘outside distractions.’  Shouldn’t there be additional aggressive safeguards in place that will IMMEDIATELY prevent the medical provider from committing more harm?

We leave you with this: Yes, emergency suspensions were put into effect 248 times in 2009.  However, compare that with the approximate 24,000 complaints that were filed against doctors and other members of the medical profession the same year, by both individuals and other agencies.  Are we really to believe that only 248 of those 24,000 cases required emergency suspension of one’s practice…??

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