WITH IMPRESSIVE speed and concern, Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer has responded to a medical scandal reported in shocking detail this month by Post staff writer Susan Schmidt: the absence of any effective system for disciplining physicians who are guilty of unethical or criminal conduct or repeated findings of malpractice. The situation has been nothing short of horrible. Susan Schmidt found cases of doctors who were allowed to practice after being convicted of serious crimes -- including raping a patient -- or being found incompetent by the state Commission on Medical Discipline. The commission itself, in fact, rarely has barred incompetent or unethical doctors from practicing -- and has revoked only 18 licenses in two decades.

A week ago, Gov. Schaefer announced a stem-to-stern overhaul, including proposals to hire full-time investigators and hearing examiners to deal with complaints. The governor also is seeking approval of a measure that would automatically suspend the medical license of a doctor convicted of a crime of moral turpitude. The governor wants to abolish the commission and the state Board of Medical Examiners, which issues and renews licenses, and replace them with a single agency. Instead of investigations by physician volunteers, the job would be handled by full-time state investigators.

As Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. noted, "Doctors should do what they do best, which is make medical evaluations, and investigators should do what they do best, which is to investigate and prosecute cases." The changes have the support of the Medical and Chirurgical Society, and key legislative leaders have been calling for similar changes. Enactment of all the proposals should be considered a prerequisite for adjournment of this year's General Assembly session.