A recent piece by Becky Oliver at Fox 4 revealed how dysfunctional the Texas Board of Medical Examiners is. She uses some alarming statistics and focuses on several Texan families who have experienced first-hand how harmful the institution can be. To understand what makes these heart-wrenching stories so important, you have to understand what the board’s role is in the medical oversight system as a whole.
What You Need to Know About the Board
The Texas Board of Medical Examiners was designed to protect patients from doctors and other medical professionals who are unethical or harmful. The idea was that doctors, who are best equipped to understand when a medical mistake has been made, would police their own. The board would place those who failed to live up to the standard of care under review, and, if necessary, enforce a variety of disciplinary actions. These actions can be anywhere from a small fine to revoking a doctor’s right to practice.
Like many institutions, there’s nothing wrong with the idea of the board. In the abstract, it is an ideal mission where the goal is “to protect and enhance the public’s health, safety and welfare by establishing and maintaining standards of excellence used in regulating the practice of medicine and ensuring quality health care for the citizens of Texas through licensure, discipline and education.”
Where the Board Has Failed
What’s frustrating is the execution of the board’s lofty principles. It’s the Texas Board of Medical Examiners inability to address Texan’s serious health concerns that has turned a noble ideal into a hectic bureaucratic organization that too often over-protects doctors at the expense of patients. The board has failed on three levels: They are ineffectual in conducting timely investigations; they refuse to provide adequate transparency for patients who are involved, and they are unwilling to enact proportional disciplinary responses once a problem has been discovered.
Numbers wise, it breaks down like this:
- In the last 9 years complaints have gone from 4,900 to more than 8,000.
- Despite the increase in complaints, investigations have gone down 25%.
- For the few that are investigated, claims take on average 328 days to resolve.
- Texas is ranked 34th nationwide in disciplinary actions against medical professionals.
- The public only sees disciplinary action, and even then only when it’s been finalized.
Real Life Examples of Hardship
It can seem very impersonal, until you listen to the stories from patients who are desperate to get the board’s attention. Many individuals’ voice their concern in the Fox 4 news piece. One of the saddest is the viewpoint of the Dickerson family. Jennifer Dickerson saw a maternal-fetal medicine expert, Dr. Manuel Rivera-Alsina, when she was pregnant.
He failed to diagnose the baby’s congenital diaphragmatic hernia, leaving the family in a difficult position with no opportunity to look for treatment. Their daughter died right after she was born, and the Dickersons looked to the Texas Board of Medical Examiners for answers. After a lengthy process, Dr. Rivera-Alsina walked away with an insignificant $2,000 fine and instructions to get more training. A response that the Dickersons believed was negligible compared to the damage he had done.
It’s not only the measure of the board’s response; it’s also the snail pace of the investigations. In one case mentioned on the news, a woman underwent botched plastic surgery that was more than just cosmetically problematic. She actually had to have 27 follow-up surgeries and has to wear braces to keep her feet in place for the rest of her life. She brought a complaint against the doctor, Dr. Molina, to the medical board.
The board dragged its feet, and during their lengthy tight-lipped investigation one of his newer patients, Monica Moreno, was fighting for her life. Moreno had contracted a severe infection after the surgeon performed what should have been routine procedures. The Moreno family has commented that of course they would never have gone to the doctor if they knew of the prior complaints. If the board is meant to prevent doctors from continuing to make mistakes, then they need to suspend those under investigation or act faster because during the average 328 days it takes to investigate, other patients are at risk.
Notorious Offenders – Letting the Worst Offender Go
The most publicly embarrassing incident for the board that Oliver addressed was related to the now infamous Dr. Jacques Roy. If you haven’t already heard, Roy has been accused of committing the largest act of Medicare fraud ever recorded – stealing $350 Million dollars from the government. Most of the nation had never heard of the Rockwall doctor until he was arrested, but the Texas Board of Medical Examiners had dealt with him before.
He was investigated in 2001 after the death of Deborah Sommers. She died with an elevated level of hydrocodone in her system. A full investigation by the board showed the doctor was having an affair with her and wrote her nearly forty prescriptions for the drug. Her daughter Amber, then 9 years old, talked about how much the doctor’s name has haunted her family. If the investigation showed all this, what was the board’s decision? Five years of probation – a sentence that obviously didn’t do the trick because he’s now being held in Federal prison.
The Big Picture – How This Effects All of Us
Although I do not personally know any of these families, much of what they have experienced rings true for the clients and potential clients that communicate with our office daily. They feel pushed aside or sometimes completely forgotten by the Texas Board of Medical Examiners and the system as a whole. In today’s political climate, the civil justice system is simply not equipped to process the volume and complexity of medical mistakes that occur in Texas. We need the Texas Board of Medical Examiners to do its part.
As Becky Oliver explains in her broadcast, one of the justifications for tort reform was to enlarge the size and powers of the medical board to ensure that the justice that now could not be dealt in the courts could find a home in the medical peer-review system. The board’s inability to efficiently and fairly investigate medical professionals has further unbalanced an already unequal system.
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