Massachusetts courts routinely fail to report doctors facing criminal charges to the board that oversees physician discipline, sometimes leaving regulators and the public in the dark, a state audit released Tuesday found.
State courts reported just two doctors to the Board of Registration in Medicine between 2002 and 2012, the audit found. But when state Auditor Suzanne Bump’s staff searched criminal records, it found 84 active physicians during the same period with felony or serious misdemeanor convictions, or “continuations without a finding.’’
The law requires the courts to report all such cases to the medical board, which considers whether they warrant board action and, in certain instances, posts the information on its website.
The majority of the unreported offenses — 59 — were for driving under the influence, leaving the scene of an accident, or negligently operating a vehicle. But nine doctors were charged with assault and battery and four with fraud, and other cases involved distributing drugs, malicious destruction of property, threatening a person, and larceny.
“Eleven years, and only two reports had been made. That is a serious system failure,’’ Bump said in an interview. The courts and the medical board “both had responsibility for providing this information,” she added, “and until this audit, both of them were failing in their responsibility.’’
In all but four of the nondriving cases, however, a board official said it discovered the offenses through other avenues, such as from police and the doctors themselves, who are required to report criminal offenses when they renew their licenses every two years. This allowed for timely investigations and public reporting, the official said.
“We get information about physicians from a number of different sources, not just the court,’’ Barbara Piselli, the board’s acting executive director, said in an interview Tuesday. “The board’s ability to protect or inform the public was not impacted.’’
Still, Bump said, the breakdown in communications between the courts and the board could mean crucial information about doctors does not always become available to the public.
The findings were part of a sweeping review of the board’s activities, covering mostly 2010 to 2012. While the audit found the board was operating well overall, it also faulted the agency’s online physician profiles, which are supposed to help consumers choose a doctor but did not always provide the most useful information.
Since the findings were provided to the courts and the board, Bump’s office said the two are developing a reporting system. Chief Justice Paula M. Carey said in a written statement that she and courts Administrator Harry Spence “are committed to fulfilling this reporting requirement as efficiently and as accurately as possible.
“We have already been in conversations with the Board of Medicine regarding these findings and have agreed upon a preliminary approach for a routine matching of the Board of Medicine Records with Trial Court records to address any identified shortcomings,” she said.
Even though the courts are required to notify the board about criminal charges against doctors, Bump’s office faulted medical regulators for not being more aggressive in seeking the information. The board mailed letters in March 2012 to all clerk-magistrates and chief probation officers in the state, stressing the importance of reporting doctors. But the agency did not follow up or establish formal communication with the Executive Office of Trial Courts, which told Bump’s office it would have required the courts to comply.
The auditor criticized the board for not establishing alternative methods of uncovering criminal convictions, such as routinely conducting criminal background checks. The board said it now plans to do such checks when a physician applies for a license, starting this month.
Waiting for doctors to report criminal activity when they renew their licenses every two years does not ensure the timely reporting of this information to the public, Bump’s staff said.
“As a result, the Board cannot be certain that its online individual physician profiles are complete and accurate, which could affect the public’s ability to make informed decisions about physicians they are considering using as healthcare providers,’’ the audit concluded.
Piselli said the board did not know about four physicians with nondriving criminal charges identified by the audit. Three were convicted of assault and battery, and one was convicted of malicious destruction of property. She would not comment on whether the board is investigating these physicians now that it has the information.
But she said the board has initiated several investigations as a result of the information from the auditors.
The audit also recommended the board enhance its physician profiles.
In one case, the board disciplined a physician who had been charged with operating under the influence, negligent operation of a motor vehicle, and two counts of assault and battery against a police officer and had been placed on probation. However, the doctor’s online profile showed only the physician’s license status as “suspension,” with no further explanation.
In another instance, a physician’s license status was listed as “active’’ with a comment that the physician’s profile was being updated. That doctor had been convicted of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud and of filing a false health care claim.
“Since the generic description does not mention the reason for the update, the public may be under the impression that the Active license status indicates that there are no pending issues, when in fact the physician may pose a threat to public safety,’’ the audit said.
Piselli said the board is evaluating these issues, but providing more detail when a doctor is listed as suspended would require “a very significant overhaul of the physician profile system.’’ She said the public can obtain the reasons for a suspension by calling the board or from documents on its website.
The board is still working to comply with a previous directive to improve its public database. Regulators and state Senator Richard Moore devised a plan for overhauling the profiles, which was written into the 2012 state budget bill.
Piselli said the agency has added disciplinary actions that are more than 10 years old, which had previously been hidden from public view. But it has not yet put online profiles for 23,000 doctors whose licenses were revoked or expired, or who retired or resigned, in some cases because they were seriously negligent in their care of patients.
Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.