It’s time for all physicians to have a national medical license


The current pandemic is forcing changes throughout the health care industry. Telehealth is witnessing a surge. Hospitals are struggling without elective care, and remarkably, physicians are being laid off during a time of crisis. While some states have a surplus work force, other states go begging, and they lock the system up with delays in the processing of applications.

Considering the prevalence of noncompete clauses and a schism in state-to-state processing of complaints, patients are suffering and dying under an antiquated system. The Federation of State Medical Boards doesn’t seem to add to the solution, but instead confounds the problem with new directives. The time is nigh for the federal government to eliminate state medical licensure and replace it with a national medical license for all physicians and health care professionals.

Because physicians’ training requirements don’t vary from state to state, it makes sense. We must take national standardized exams to qualify. Locum tenens physicians must maintain licensure in as many states as they practice; this creates an unnecessary burden and expense, when there is a better alternative. Some states have arranged reciprocity licensure with other states. This is commendable but doesn’t go far enough to manage national shortages in rural areas.

Under a national licensing system, physicians and other health care professionals would not only be free to travel anywhere in the United States to practice, they can count on consistent and equal management of their license. The federal government can track regional overages and shortages and redirect physicians and other medical professionals with incentives to areas in need.

The FSMB claims that there is interstate continuity among state medical boards, but the data don’t support this.

Why is this the case? Each medical board fails to manage their charges equally. Often, action taken by one state board when reported to another state board can cause a review and readjudication. This occasionally results in the overturning of a reprimand or suspension because of differences in legislation.

Yet the physician or health care professional must bear the burden of the notification against their license. Once again, the FSMB claims there is interstate continuity in disciplinary actions, but the data do not support this.

Once someone brings a complaint against a health professional, which in this health care climate is inevitable, the medical board must institute an investigation. Even if it has no merit, the process must go forward. Under a national system, a consistent approach to dismiss and investigate issues and complaints might expedite the process. This eliminates inefficiency and delays in clearance of charges.

A report in 2006 identified fragmentation and discontinuities in the way each state medical board manages a physician or other health care personnel’s complaints. The number of hands involved in the process varies and is often onerous and redundant. Several sources may request the same information, tying it up as it moves through an inefficient and uncooperative system. With the increase in internal politics since then, this only compounds rather than improves the problem.

Yet the benefit of national licensure is not just for the health care personnel but also for insurance companies that must register and screen physicians as they move from region to region. In each state, the physician must repeat the accreditation process, delaying reimbursements and denying care. Hospitals also must repeat the credentialing task as well. This, although the physician or health care worker has a clean record with the same company or the same hospital system in their original state.

Perhaps data from one insurance group or hospital in another state get lost or altered in transfer, but under national licensing, this would not be possible. Furthermore, the current system limits the individual professional’s input. By nationalizing, record corrections would go through a federal database rather than state data banks that don’t sync.

This already partially exists with the National Practitioner Identifier. But we can take it one step further. Through nationalization, we could institute a fairer system of reporting where both the professional’s and the complainant’s summary is included. One might argue the National Physician Data Bank performs this function, but in fact, it merely reflects state assessments – which again vary.

The infrastructure is already in place to transition from a state to national system with facilities and records kept in each state’s medical board. It would simply be a matter of replacing state personnel with federal employees who all work from the same script. A national medical license simply makes sense for all parties. It reduces discontinuity and increases efficiency. A national medical license empowers the individual rather than institutions, yet benefits both.

The time is nigh to nationally certify and set physicians free, reduce paperwork and needless fees, and eliminate state supremacy.

Dr. Raymond is an emergency physician based in Hickory, N.C., and Muckendorf an der Donau, Austria.

A version of this article first appeared on

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