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What to Do With Errant Doctors

Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page A18

In The Post's series on medical boards' disciplinary practices [front page, April 10-12], the April 10 account of Virginia ophthalmologist Kenneth D. Hansen -- who arrived late for surgery, unshaven, hair uncombed, eyes glassy, speech slurred, face and hands appearing to be swollen -- raises a question: Why did the hospital staff who observed his condition not prevent him from taking the scalpel to the patient?

If a bartender serves alcohol to a seriously inebriated customer who then gets in a car and kills someone, the bartender can be held criminally accountable.

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Perhaps hospital staff are intimidated by a system that institutionalizes the protection of physicians and thereby tolerates behavior that poses a danger to the public. Reforming or replacing this cozy disciplinary regime won't happen without a battle: No profession will willingly dismantle or hobble a system that protects its members from accountability. But taking the bartender as an example, we might consider raising to the level of criminal negligence the failure to report physicians who show up drunk or on drugs. Stop them before they hurt someone, or face prosecution.

SUZANNE CAVILIA

Glastonbury, Conn.

The April 11 front-page story about medical discipline, which focused on the workings of the D.C. Board of Medicine, lacked the balance needed for a realistic assessment of the operations of the board and those who practice medicine. Members of the board take their duties seriously. In the past few years, we have:

• Significantly reduced the turnaround time for new and renewal licenses.

• Created a Web site through which the public can find out the license status of D.C. physicians.

• Initiated an online renewal process.

• Started an enrollment program to track postgraduate physician training in D.C. hospitals.

• Significantly improved our disciplinary record.

The story quoted Sidney M. Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, as saying that the D.C. Board has "consistently been one of the worst in the country." In 2000 and early 2001, that might have been true. Since then, the board's performance has improved markedly.

For the three years ending in 2004, Public Citizen ranked the D.C. board on the basis of serious disciplinary actions as 30th in the country. Virginia ranked 33rd, and Maryland ranked 47th.


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