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State’s medical panel chief steps down

The staff director of the Board of Registration in Medicine resigned Tuesday, and the departure, combined with turnover among board members this year, indicates a probable shift in focus at the agency that oversees licensing and discipline for more than 34,000 physicians in the state.

Every seat on the seven-member board has been filled with someone new in the past 18 months or left empty after resignations. And Dr. Stancel Riley, who had been the agency’s top executive for three years, had somewhat different priorities than the board’s new leader, according to their public remarks.

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When Riley took the job, he talked about serving patients while also listening to the needs of doctors, while the new leader of the board said Thursday that she is passionately focused on protecting patients.

Chairwoman Dr. Candace Sloane said the board will name an interim director and begin a search for a permanent one. She declined to comment on the specifics of Riley’s departure.

“I just think that he’s taking his life in a different direction,” she said.

Riley, who trained as a surgeon and previously worked for the board’s Patient Care Assessment division, could not be reached Thursday.

Some attorneys who represent physicians before the board lamented Riley’s departure. Attorney David Gould called it “a tragedy for everyone,” saying Riley worked to improve the quality of health care in the state by identifying systemic problems in addition to those stemming from the actions of individual physicians.

‘Over the past year, the board has taken concrete steps to make enhancements in these areas, protect patients, and increase its commitment to transparency.’

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But the board has faced criticism under Riley’s leadership, too. Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, ranks medical boards based on the rate at which they take serious disciplinary action against doctors. Massachusetts has fallen from the middle of the pack a decade ago to near the bottom, at 48.

While some policy analysts take issue with the metric, saying it could indicate better quality of care in Massachusetts, for example, others say the fact that the state is an outlier may point to leniency on the board.

The Globe published a story in March by the Northeastern University Initiative for Investigative Reporting exposing how little information about dangerous doctors the board releases to the public.

A public database of provider profiles, for example, included no information on dozens of criminal convictions of Massachusetts doctors. And the profiles for doctors who had lost their license as a result of disciplinary actions were removed from the online database entirely, leaving no easily accessible record.

The health care cost law signed by Governor Deval Patrick in August included provisions to improve the database, requiring more complete profiles. Sloane said the changes could go live in January.

The board is meant to hold physicians to high standards and to provide information about doctor licensing and discipline to the public, Alec Loftus, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said in an e-mail.

“Over the past year, the board has taken concrete steps to make enhancements in these areas, protect patients and increase its commitment to transparency,” he said.

The Patrick administration is under pressure to strengthen the state’s regulatory boards, following two scandals involving the Department of Public Health. A national outbreak of fungal meningitis has been linked to drugs produced at a Framingham company and state regulators’ failure to prevent the compounding pharmacy from operating outside the scope of its license. The governor on Thursday announced three new appointees to the pharmacy board, replacing two prior members and filling a vacancy.

The outbreak developed soon after a chemist at a lab previously operated by the health department was arrested and accused of tampering with drug samples, throwing into question thousands of convictions.

Sloane and Loftus declined to answer specific questions about the medical board and Riley’s departure.

Former board chairman Dr. Peter Paige, a leader in emergency management at UMass Memorial Medical Center, learned in May that the governor would appoint someone else to his seat.

Judge Herbert Hodos, a representative of the public on the board, was told in September he would not be reappointed, he said. His replacement was attorney Kathleen Meyer, whose husband’s high-profile firm represents patients in medical malpractice cases.

Gould, the lawyer who represents doctors, said he was concerned about Meyer’s appointment and surprised by Riley’s departure.

“What direction is the board going to take, and how are they going to replace him?” he said.

Three other board members resigned this year. The governor is working to fill those vacancies, Sloane said. She is optimistic about the board’s future, in which transparency will be paramount.

“The patients need it,” she said. “They deserve it, and the doctors that are outstanding want it, too.”

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy. Globe Correspondent Walter V. Robinson contributed to this report.
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