WASHINGTON -- Maryland is among the worst states in the country in disciplining physicians, a study by a consumer watchdog group found, while Washington is one of the most improved jurisdictions.
Public Citizen's annual ranking of state medical boards found that the rate of disciplinary action for doctors last year was 21.5 percent lower than in 2004. That's 2.92 serious discipline actions per 1,000 doctors in 2008 compared with 3.72 actions per 1,000 in 2004.
Actions can include license revocations, surrenders, suspensions and probations or restrictions.
"The overall national downward trend of serious disciplinary actions against physicians is troubling because it indicates many states are not living up to their obligations to protect patients from bad doctors," said Sidney Wolfe, a physician and director of Public Citizen's health research group.
Maryland is ranked 45th. It has been among the worst 10 states for the past six rankings, Wolfe said. Virginia is ranked 28th. Washington is among the five most improved. It was ranked 42nd in 2003 and 17th in 2008.
"The progress in these states is commendable because the medical boards have figured out ways ... to improve the protection for patients from doctors who need to be disciplined but, in the past, were disciplined much less rigorously," Wolfe said.
The Washington Post found in 2005 that the D.C. medical board rarely punished doctors. This was true even after they were disciplined in Maryland and Virginia for questionable medical care, criminal wrongdoing or substance abuse problems.
The Post's report prompted District officials to allocate more funding for staff and improved technology.
"We are one of the most improved boards in the country," said Feseha Woldu, senior deputy director of the District's Health Regulation and Licensing Administration.
The report ranks Alaska first in disciplining doctors.
Irving Pinder, executive director of the Maryland Board of Physicians, called the findings flawed.
"I've always argued that Public Citizen's statistics are very misleading because ... they assume the pool of doctors is the same in every state," Pinder said. "Maryland has some of the best doctors ... in the country. If you need to go in for major surgery, would you want to be in Alaska or Maryland?"