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10 things not to do in a medical board hearing


A Florida doctor told his patient her test result would be available in 3-4 days. When the patient didn’t hear back, she called the practice several times, but she didn’t receive a return call. So she filed a complaint against the doctor with the medical board.

When the board investigator interviewed the doctor, the physician said he wasn’t aware the patient had called. But his staff said otherwise. Because the doctor had not been truthful, the board sent him a letter of guidance and required him to attend a training program in ethics.

Miami attorney William J. Spratt Jr., who supplied this anecdote about a former client, said that most complaints are dismissed with no action taken, but some complaints don’t go away because doctors mishandle them.

The following are some common mistakes that physicians make when dealing with a board complaint.

1. Not responding to the complaint

The complaint you get from the board – which often comes with a subpoena and a response deadline – usually asks for medical records pertinent to the case.

You can’t disregard the board’s letter, said Doug Brocker, an attorney handling board actions in Raleigh, N.C. “It’s amazing to me that some people just ignore a board complaint. Sometimes it’s because the doctor is just burnt out, which may have gotten the doctor into trouble in the first place.”

If you do not respond to a subpoena, “the board can file a court order holding you in contempt and start taking action on your license,” said Jeff Segal, MD, a neurosurgeon and attorney in Greensboro, N.C. Dr. Segal is CEO of Medical Justice Services, which protects physicians’ reputations associated with malpractice suits and board actions. “Not responding is not much different from agreeing to all of the charges.”

2. Not recognizing the seriousness of the complaint

“The biggest mistake is not taking a complaint seriously,” said Linda Stimmel, an attorney at Wilson Elser in Dallas. “Physicians who get a complaint often fire off a brief response stating that the complaint has no merit, without offering any evidence.”

According to Ms. Stimmel, “it’s really important to back up your assertions, such as using excerpts from the medical record, citations of peer-reviewed articles, or a letter of support from a colleague.”

“Weigh your answers carefully, because lack of accuracy will complicate your case,” Mr. Brocker said. “Consult the medical record rather than rely on your memory.”

“Present your version of events, in your own words, because that’s almost always better than the board’s version,” said Dr. Segal.

Even if there was a bad clinical outcome, Dr. Segal said you might point out that the patient was at high risk, or you could show that your clinical outcomes are better than the national average.

3. Thinking the board is on your side

You may be lulled into a false sense of security because the physicians on the medical board are your peers, but they can be as tough as any medical malpractice judge, said William P. Sullivan, DO, an emergency physician and attorney in Frankfort, Ill.

As per the National Practitioner Data Bank, physicians are three to four times more likely to incur an adverse board action than make a malpractice payout, Dr. Sullivan said.

Also, although a malpractice lawsuit rarely involves more than a monetary payment, a board action, like a monitoring plan, can restrict your ability to practice medicine. In fact, any kind of board action against you can make it harder to find employment.

4. Not being honest or forthcoming

“Lying to the board is the fastest way to turn what would have been a minor infraction into putting your license at risk,” Mr. Brocker said. This can happen when doctors update a medical record to support their version of events.

As per Dr. Sullivan, another way to put your license at risk is to withhold adverse information, which the board can detect by obtaining your application for hospital privileges or for licensure to another state, in which you revealed the adverse information.

Dr. Sullivan also advised against claiming you “always” take a certain precautionary measure. “In reality, we doctors don’t always do what we would like to have done. By saying you always do it when you didn’t, you appear less than truthful to the board, and boards have a hard time with that.”

Similarly, “when doctors don’t want to recognize that they could have handled things better, they tend to dance around the issue,” Mr. Brocker said. “This does not sit well with the board.” Insisting that you did everything right when it’s obvious that you didn’t can lead to harsher sanctions. “The board wants to make sure doctors recognize their mistakes and are willing to learn from them.”

5. Providing too much information

You may think that providing a great deal of information strengthens your case, but it can actually weaken it, Mr. Brocker said. Irrelevant information makes your response hard to follow, and it may contain evidence that could prompt another line of inquiry.

“Less is more,” Dr. Segal advised. “Present a coherent argument and keep to the most salient points.” Being concise is also good advice if your complaint proceeds to the board and you have to present your case.

Dr. Segal said the board will stop paying attention to long-winded presentations. He tells his clients to imagine the board is watching a movie. “If your presentation is tedious or hard to follow, you will lose them.”

6. Trying to contact the complainant

Complaints are kept anonymous, but in many cases, the doctor has an idea who the complainant was and may try to contact that person. “It’s natural to wonder why a patient would file a complaint against you,” Mr. Brocker said, but if you reach out to the patient to ask why, “it could look like you’re trying to persuade the patient to drop the complaint.”

Doctors who are involved in a practice breakup or a divorce can be victims of false and malicious complaints, but Beth Y. Collis, a partner at the law firm of Dinsmore & Shohl in Columbus, said boards are onto this tactic and usually reject these complaints.

The doctor may be tempted to sue the complainant, but Mr. Brocker said this won’t stop the complaint and could strengthen it. “Most statements to the medical board are protected from defamation lawsuits, and any lawsuit could appear to be intimidation.”


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