Cynthia H. Moran, MD, has a medical degree, a passion for treating the elderly, and a desire to work. What she doesn’t have is a job or hopes of getting one anytime soon.
The Houston physician has never been charged with a crime, but she did run afoul of the Texas Medical Board, an experience she said has left her destitute and virtually unemployable in the medical field.
“By the time the board gets through with you, you will be bankrupt and have nothing,” she said.
Dr. Moran has a long, tangled history with the board involving self-prescribing, opioid abuse , depression, and unprofessional conduct. After years of license suspension, drug testing, additional CME, substance abuse treatment, and work restrictions, her supervision by the board ended in 2019, but she has been largely unable to find work as a physician.
“I feel like a felon. I really understand what it’s like to be someone who does their time but then can’t get a job, can’t get an apartment. It’s in your record and there’s nothing you can do about it,” she said.
Although Dr. Moran largely created her own troubles, her experience shows the power state medical licensing boards have when it comes to disciplining physicians.
Reprimands to revocations
Many physicians think of their state medical boards as simply the bodies that issue their medical licenses, but the boards have other functions, including investigating complaints against licensed medical professionals and sometimes disciplining them.
According to 2017 statistics from the Federation of State Medical Boards (the most recent available), state boards took 8,813 actions that year. These included 796 suspensions, 764 probations, 570 surrendered licenses, and 264 revoked licenses.
Boards also can order doctors to enter state-run physician health plans to receive treatment for substance abuse, or they can allow physicians to practice only under the supervision of colleagues.
Although they vary by state, the boards are fundamentally similar. Members are appointed by the governor. A majority of them are physicians, and the remainder are nonmedical professionals. Their investigators, often retired law enforcement officials, have broad powers to collect evidence, including medical records. Their authority is backed by the state attorney general.
Although physicians tend to worry more about being sued for malpractice, a medical board investigation can be more worrisome, said William Sullivan, DO, JD, an ED physician and attorney in Illinois who has represented doctors before that state’s board. Board disciplinary actions outnumber malpractice awards by four to one in that state.
“The gravity of this is something that many physicians don’t understand,” he said.
You can be the subject of anonymous complaints and investigations
Anyone can file a complaint against a physician with a state board. The grievances can be about anything from a crowded waiting room to physician impairment.
Of course, the most trivial complaints (out-of-date magazines in the waiting room) are dismissed out of hand, but boards have the authority to investigate whatever it chooses. The most common investigations center around complaints of impairment, substance abuse, improper prescribing, faulty medical records, mental and physical health problems, and standard of care. Boards also will act if a physician is found guilty of a crime or misconduct unrelated to his or her medical practice.