The Drop of Disciplinary Actions Against Doctors Amid COVID-19 Examined

From April through June of 2020, emergency actions against doctors’ licenses dropped by 59%. This overall drop was driven by declines between 50% and 100% in six states, including Texas. Such a drop caused many patient safety advocates to worry, because many hospitals still have vulnerable and compromised patients, making errors more likely and more dangerous. According to the Federation of State Medical Boards, representing the boards of all 50 states and Washington, D.C., its data shows medical boards’ emergency and non-emergency disciplinary actions against doctors being down 14% from January through June. All these drops are attributed to COVID-19. At the same time, a distinction is to be made: The drop in medical board action was far higher than the decrease in hospital-levied actions to restrict or terminate doctors’ clinical privileges on a non-emergency basis.

Different reasons are pointed out for the drop. For example, patient safety advocates and plaintiff lawyers mention the combination of state budget pressures and the “hero status” of health care workers amid COVID-19. Regarding the former, apparently some medical boards were affected by staff reductions and furloughs, further slowing the consideration of complaints filed; it already takes a year or more from when a doctor is accused of harming a patient to when it gets to the data bank. On the other hand, according to the president of the Federation of State Medical Boards, a likely explanation is the sharp drop in inpatient visits, with or without a decline in complaints to state boards.

The complaint process and related restrictions might also explain the drop in emergency actions against doctors. Medical boards receive complaints from individuals, hospitals, and medical malpractice settlements. In the Northeast, for example, hospitals were slower than usual to produce documents while battling the virus. Moreover, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gave hospitals and doctors immunity from civil lawsuits for anything stemming from COVID-19 treatment. Meanwhile, physician shortage, which became worse as the pandemic sidelined more doctors, could also have increased the reluctance of medical boards to restrict or suspend licenses. Finally, errors arguably would be harder to detect in such a hospital environment where only the sickest COVID-19 patients were admitted, many being near death.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of medical malpractice, please contact an attorney at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Agosto, Aziz & Stogner by calling (713) 222-7211 or toll free at 713-222-7211.