When a consumer advocacy group issued a report the other day that showed Utah at the top of the list for disciplinary actions taken against doctors - 14.7 per 1,000 in 1987 - some might conclude that the state leads the nation in physicians who do shoddy work.
Actually, the numbers mean no such thing. What they do indicate is that Utah's state medical board is more vigilant in following up complaints about doctors and is more willing to take action.The Public Citizen Health Research Group compiled the statistics showing that an estimated 2,600 formal disciplinary actions are taken each year nationwide.
According to the study, too many medical boards fail to act or at most give a slap on the wrist to "impaired doctors." Many state boards see their job as protecting the doctor, rather than the public.
Seen in that light, Utah's relatively high number of disciplinary cases would indicate that the medical board is responsive to patient complaints and does follow through with investigation and action.
A major problem is that the public usually has no way of knowing about doctors who have been disciplined.
The federal government plans to start a national data bank in September to collect information about doctors who have been disciplined. But the data would be released only to hospitals and certain government and medical agencies.
Public Citizen wants the information to be available to the public as well. That is a reasonable request. After all, the national registry will be financed by tax money. In any case, people have the right to know such information before they put their bodies, their health and their lives in the care of a physician.
The consumer group published its own list of doctors recently disciplined by medical boards or federal agencies in 41 states. It lists 6,892 doctors, state by state, along with the reasons for the disciplinary action.
The list, the size of a thick book, is expensive, incomplete and available only through the Public Citizen Health Research Group, Department QD, 2000 P St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036. Cost is $30 for individuals, consumer groups and government agencies and $100 for businesses, doctors and lawyers.
Some doctors and medical groups may argue against the release of such information. But the public has a relevant personal stake in being able to know if a doctor has been recently disciplined - and why.