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"Thanks to Consumer Reports, we have good, accurate, comparable data on cars. We don't really have anything like that on physicians, even though physicians result in more deaths than cars do," says Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. The Web site "allows people to question their doctors, which is appropriate."
The consumer advocacy group has published national and regional reports on doctors in book form for years. The new site, www.questionabledoctors.org, offers disciplinary records of doctors in 13 states. For $10 one can obtain detailed information on up to ten doctors.
According to Public Citizen, Texas ranks 30th in the nation in the number of disciplinary actions taken against doctors, meting out less than three punishments for every 1,000 physicians. Arizona, by contrast, averaged roughly 11 disciplinary actions per 1,000 doctors for violations ranging from incompetence to sexual misconduct.
"People who would not be able to practice [medicine] in other states are practicing here because the state is so lenient ," says Wolfe, a doctor of internal medicine in Washington, D.C.
But William H. Fleming, the former president of the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners, argues that it's difficult to compare states because their respective medical boards reprimand doctors for different violations. Held up to states of comparable size, Texas "actually does a pretty good job," he says.
"The numbers that Public Citizen uses are somewhat flawed," adds Fleming, a Houston neurologist and president of the Harris County Medical Society.
Information provided by Public Citizen seems to contradict Fleming's assertions. New York, for example, took disciplinary action against nearly three times as many doctors as Texas in 2001. And, Wolfe points out, the "flawed" numbers used by his group come directly from the state medical boards, including the one in Texas.
In a prepared statement, the Texas board's executive director "congratulates" Public Citizen for helping consumers make informed choices about doctors. The statement by Dr. Donald Patrick goes on to tout the board's own free public information on the disciplinary histories of physicians, physician assistants and acupuncturists. However, a visit to the agency's Web site proved fruitless. An inquiry into the publicized Dr. Scheffey (see "Tracking 'Eric the Red,' " by Richard Connelly, May 28, 1998) fielded nothing but an error message.
A representative at the board's customer information center said that she, too, was getting an error message but promised to fax over Scheffey's records.
Public Citizen's Web site did not offer the same difficulties. The site contains detailed information on two separate actions taken against Scheffey. In 1995, the state slapped the Houston orthopedic surgeon with 60 months of probation, claiming he had "persistently and flagrantly overcharged or overtreated four patients" with unsupported diagnoses and questionable surgeries, among other violations. Last year he was reprimanded for performing surgeries on two patients without reflecting "adequate indications" for those operations in his records.
"Hundreds of thousands of people are going to doctors" who have been sanctioned, says Wolfe. "Most don't have a clue what their doctor did to merit disciplinary action."