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A data gap on Mass. doctors’ troubles

State board lags in posting loss of license, censure

The board that oversees physician discipline in Massachusetts has yet to deliver on its promise to post more information online about doctors who are charged with a crime or who have a history of negligent care.

Now, doctors whose licenses are revoked or allowed to expire as a result of disciplinary actions are absent from the board’s public database. And information about malpractice cases or board actions is removed after 10 years from the profiles of still-licensed physicians.

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After The Boston Globe reported last March about the Board of Registration in Medicine’s practice of pulling information about the most troubled doctors from public view, board leaders promised to do better. They worked with state Senator Richard Moore to make a plan for overhauling the database, and the plan was written into last year’s state budget bill.

The new system had been expected to be operating by January. But when the board’s executive director left under pressure in December and Barbara Piselli took over as interim head, board members learned the project was not far enough along to meet that deadline, said Dr. Candace Sloane, the board chairwoman. Sloane said she hopes to begin rolling out the new system this spring.

Sloane and Dr. Gerald Healy, the vice chairman, met with Moore recently to explain the delay. Moore, an Uxbridge Democrat and a former chairman of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, said in an interview that he was disappointed but that the board should have a chance to get the system going within a “reasonable time.”

“This is a tool that I think is critical for patient safety and for consumers who are looking for a doctor,” he said.

Meanwhile, the searchable database remains silent on many doctors who have been seriously negligent in their care of patients or who have been convicted of a crime.

If former patients of Dr. Roger Wesley Farris II, for example, looked up his name today, they would find nothing about him, because the board this month accepted a move by Farris to forfeit renewal of his Massachusetts license. The neurologist is serving a sentence of three years and eight months in federal prison after pleading guilty to soliciting sex from a minor several years ago, at a Pittsburgh hotel.

The Globe, in partnership with Northeastern University Initiative for Investigative Reporting, last year reported that Massachusetts was the first state to make doctor profiles public on its website, starting in 1997. Since then, it has become one of few states that remove the profiles of doctors who have lost their licenses and that post only 10 years of a physician’s history.

The public profiles do not include criminal convictions or disciplinary actions taken by regulators in other states against doctors also licensed in Massachusetts.

The budget language Moore worked on required that the profiles include more details over a doctor’s history, including disciplinary actions from other states. And the law said records must be public even after doctors lose their license.

After learning how much work was left on the database, including asking all physicians to fact-check their records before posting, Sloane said, “We made it a number one priority.”

Moore said he expects the board to implement the measure soon. New state laws aimed at controlling health care spending require patients to take more responsibility in choosing low-cost, high-quality providers. The database is an important tool, Moore said, and “I don’t want it to slip.”

Medical boards must report disciplinary actions to the National Practitioner Data Bank, maintained by the US Health Resources & Services Administration. It also collects data from hospitals and malpractice insurers, among others.

While only a redacted version of that database is available to the public — providers are identified by an assigned number — the full history of a doctor is available to insurance companies, lawyers investigating fraud, and state regulators.

If access to a complete doctor’s history is important to those entities, “why is it not important to patients?” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of the Health Research Group at Public Citizen, a national consumer advocate. “The answer is, it is important to patients.”

Wolfe said boards should make disciplinary records available to the public — and keep them available.

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.
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