According to a CBS News Investigation, doctors with multiple malpractice payouts are rarely sanctioned by their state medical boards, and almost never have their licenses suspended or revoked. Of the 25 doctors in Florida with the most medical malpractice payouts, only 4 had their licenses revoked. However, their licenses were not revoked because of poor care, but rather because of arrests for drug trafficking or billing fraud. The data suggests that state medical boards are not adequately protecting patients.
A representative case occurred in Florida, where Dr. Susie Dunphy developed appendicitis while on vacation and required emergency surgery. Two days later, the 42 year-old mother of two bled to death in her hospital bed. In the weeks after her death, Susie’s husband Dr. Jim Dunphy reviewed his wife’s medical file. What he read convinced him that her doctor could have prevented her death. He said his wife’s blood pressure had been critically low for hours after the surgery. But no lab tests or imaging studies were ordered to see what was wrong. “These are the kind of vitals that anybody with basic training can recognize as abnormal,” Dunphy told CBS News.
Dunphy filed suit against the surgeon, Dr. Ernest Rehnke of St. Petersburg, who operated on his wife. Dr. Rehnke denied wrongdoing, but settled the case for $250,000 – the maximum his insurance policy would pay for a single claim. A review of Florida records by CBS News found Rehnke has had 11 medical malpractice lawsuit payouts since 2000 – tying him for the most of any practicing physician in Florida. Yet the Florida Board of Medicine, which is responsible for stopping dangerous doctors from practicing, has never restricted his license.
The problem is not limited to Florida. Dr. Sidney Wolfe of the watchdog group Public Citizen has published studies on state medical boards nationwide. His latest report found that from 1990 to 2009, more than half the doctors in the U.S. who had their privileges restricted or revoked by a hospital had never even been fined by their state medical board. He said hospitals generally only go after the most dangerous physicians. It is generally up to the state medical board to remove dangerous doctors, but it appears that is not happening.
About a year after Susie Dunphy’s death, her husband received a letter in the mail from the Florida Board of Medicine. It said the agency had investigated his wife’s case and found no basis to file a complaint against Rehnke. “I thought it was unbelievable,” Dunphy said. “I teach medical students. This is something so basic I would expect my medical students to recognize this is not normal…It makes me wonder if they even reviewed the case.”