You may have read some of the recent headlines about doctors getting in trouble with state licensing officials. There was the doctor in Fort Kent stripped of his license after a state board found he had cared for patients while intoxicated. A number of physicians have been disciplined recently over their drug-prescribing practices. Others have been investigated for substance abuse or inappropriate relationships with patients.
Randal Manning has seen it all, serving as executive director of the Maine Board of Licensure in Medicine for 19 years. In addition to investigating complaints, his staff also reviews all requests for new medical licenses and renewals, making sure doctors are who they say they are and trained where they say they did.
He recommends all patients look up their doctor in the state’s database.
“We want people to be involved in their care, and knowing who your physician is is a good part of it,” he said.
First, look at the letters after your doc’s name. Medical doctors (M.D.s) are overseen by Manning’s board. Doctors of osteopathic medicine (D.O.s) are regulated by the Maine Board of Osteopathic Licensure.
Plug the name into the database, select professional and financial regulation as the department, either medicine or osteopathic licensure as the agency, and you’re off and running. If it’s a common name, select Maine as the state to narrow your results. (You can also search physician assistants, and jump to other boards overseeing nurses, dentists, optometrists, pharmacists, and a few other health professions).
The database will tell you where your doctor went to medical school, when he or she was first licensed, whether the license is active, and provide a record of any disciplinary actions, among other information. The medical board’s history on disciplinary actions dates back to 1988, and those records remain public indefinitely, even after a physician has died.
“That’s a consternation for some [physician's] families,” Manning said. “Sometimes you err to be sure the public’s informed.”
You can also punch your doctor’s name into docboard.org, a free clearinghouse of physician licensing information that pulls data from 24 states. If your doctor practiced in one of those states before coming to Maine, you’ll see their history.
What if your doctor’s been punished? You may see a link in the record to a “consent agreement,” a document that details the basis for the investigation, the doctor’s response, action taken against their license (suspension, revocation, etc.), and any fines or limits placed on their practice of medicine. If you find a disciplinary action, I’d recommend clicking on “adverse licensing actions” on the medical board’s homepage or “complaints and discipline” then “board actions” on the osteopathic board’s homepage. You can search by the year or your doctor’s last name, and there’s typically a brief summary of the discipline.
One disciplinary action doesn’t necessarily mean a physician is bad or not worth seeing, Manning said.
“But knowing is a good thing,” he said.
Want to file a complaint against your doctor? There are a few things you should know. First, the board does not make determinations about malpractice. If you’re interested in suing your doctor, call an attorney. A judge or jury will decide if your doctor was “negligent,” and if so, you may win money damages.
The medical board, on the other hand, can discipline a doctor for “incompetence,” but can’t provide money to pay for any harm done to a patient. Parsing the difference between simple negligence and incompetence can be tricky for patients with a complaint. You may think a physician’s incompetent if something goes wrong with your treatment, but a simple mistake may not rise to the board’s standard of incompetence, Manning said. If you’re unsure, he suggests contacting the medical board, and you’ll be informed of their decision. If the board dismisses your complaint and takes no action against your doctor, you could potentially still file for malpractice.
The board also does not investigate billing disputes, unless there’s an allegation of fraud.
A few examples of grounds for discipline:
• Alcohol/substance abuse
• Conviction of a crime
• Fraud and deceit in obtaining a license
• Inappropriate prescribing
• Incompetence or unprofessional conduct
• Violation of law, rule, or board order
The possible results of a complaint are:
- The board closes the complaint and takes no action
- The board closes the case and issues a letter of guidance, a nondisciplinary action
- Disciplinary action, which can include a warning, censure, reprimand, fine, probation, a consent agreement, suspension, and/or loss of license
Anyone can file a complaint, by mail or a secure online form. But not anonymously — you must provide your name. Earlier this year, as part of a wider bill amending law around physician and physician assistant licensing, lawmakers weighed allowing physicians to file complaints against other physicians anonymously. A legislative committee decided licensees’ had the right to face their accusers, and that provision was dropped from the final bill, Manning said.
He estimates that about 80 percent of the complaints the board investigates are filed by patients. The rest come from hospitals, professional societies, physicians and, occasionally, federal and state health agencies.
The medical board investigated about 265 complaints last year, and will end this year a little lower, at about 250, Manning said. Despite all the headlines, the vast majority of Maine’s physicians practiced medicine during this time without coming to the attention of the board’s investigators.