MEDICAL WATCH - If a doctor harms you or kills a loved one, what recourse is there in California?
What mechanisms track and prevent harm? Is the state medical board (that licenses medical doctors and has a statutory duty to protect health care consumers) doing a good job?
According to public member TJ Watkins, the Medical Board of California (MBC) goes over and above to protect doctors, not the public, and it is costing lives. After presenting his concerns and statistical findings in several meetings and being interviewed on CBS national news with Jim Axelrod and the L.A. Times, Mr. Watkins filed a whistleblower lawsuit.
Board President Kristina Lawson opened the November 18, 2021 quarterly meeting defending the board against accusations that it’s failing consumers.
One by one, consumers who are in pain, anguish, disabled, assaulted, or whose family members were killed or committed suicide due to medical harm called in. They disagreed with Ms. Lawson and supported Mr. Watkins.
Sandy Perez, whose daughter Jordon <ref> https://www.facebook.com/jordansstory </ref> died as a result of medical negligence, vocalized repeatedly, “It's not only one kid who died. Her name is Jordan. Her name is Jessie. Her name is Demi. His name is Malakhi. And the list goes on.” Another caller spelled out the transgressions of the board punctuated by the line, “This is why we think you’re corrupt.”
Falsified, misleading records were mentioned repeatedly among consumers regarding patient death and assault. It’s common within the system that doctors notes are so full of lies and omissions that even audit trails may not present the truth. For legal purpose, if it’s not in the medical record, it never happened.
Michelle Monserratt Ramos of Consumer Watchdog leads a team of families grieving the loss of their loved ones due to medical negligence. Michele became a voice for patient protection sixteen years ago after her fiancé Lloyd Monserratt died from sepsis after his surgeon (a repeat offender and substance abuser) perforated his colon. She continued to advocate for board accountability for other Californians after the medical board dismissed her complaint. She now works directly with families to help them navigate through the regulatory board system, and to educate the public about the November 2022 ballot initiative to update the medical negligence cap in California known as the Fairness Act.
Thanks to Michele’s unrelenting work, California is the only state that has a Uniform Standards for Substance Abusing Health Care Professionals which provides consequences for substance abusing physicians leading to probation and an interim suspension order for repeat offenders. Her commitment to public participation led to access to call-in phone lines for medical board meetings allowing the public, the media, and stakeholders to participate in the board’s decision-making process.
Marian Hollingsworth is a patient safety advocate who co-founded The Patient Safety League with Eric Andrist hosts a website that monitors MBC actions. She explains her experience after her father’s wrongful death:
“I filed two MBC complaints on doctors in my dad’s case. One doctor just got a reprimand after the board promised an accusation and probation. The other complaint, as well as my appeal with updated information, was tossed. That second doctor went on to overdose a patient and get caught up in the Death Certificate Project.”
Doctors’ lobbies and consumer roadblocks
Medical error is a lead cause of death in the U.S. Some physicians harm consumers without need, consent, or rational, yet still, they remain in practice. Where are the evidence based tracking systems to stop repeat mistakes and innately bad procedures?
The Medical Board of California does not even have the ability to permanently revoke a physician’s license like some other states do. Who lobbied for this law, and why? Does it benefit consumers or physicians to allow dangerous doctors to remain in practice?
Powerful lobbyists such as The Doctors Company (TDC), a physician-owned provider of malpractice insurance, monitor every medical bill in California. The TDC has over six billion dollars in assets, (their assets have grown two billion over the last couple of years), while some malpractice victims are at risk for homelessness due to having been disabled by their negligent doctor clientele.
A majority of MBC board members are doctors; some have ties to the California Medical Association (CMA) another powerful doctors’ lobby. Recently one of the CMA affiliated doctors suggested that TJ Watkins, “Come around to our way of thinking.”
After medical harm, California consumers are told to: 1) file a medical board complaint 2) get a lawyer 3) contact their legislators to change laws, but nothing helps. The medical board throws out serious complaints, lawyers don’t want cases due to MICRA and a rigged system, and legislators may be bought, apathetic, or say the doctors’ lobbies are too strong to beat. It’s a rare Senator like Melissa Hurtado, Jerry Hill, or Hannah Beth Jackson who stands for patient rights.
The system gives unconditional authority to doctors and their boards. There are no viable options for victims. No efforts are made to provide those disabled by doctors a living wage, yet physicians that sexually or surgically assaulted consumers continue to practice.
Many people don’t file MBC complaints because the board defends doctors. Lawyers may instruct victims to wait for a positive court verdict, which rarely comes due to a corrupt system. Also, survivors may be reticent to come forward after signing a non-disclosure agreement. MBC statistics do not account for this significant number of unfiled claims.
Some consumer requests to the MBC
- Protect consumers, not bad doctors
- Focus on prevention
- Put an end to medical scams
- Have a public member majority on the board
- Allow only non-conflicted public members on the board
- Have a patient safety expert on the board
- Have medical records be co-authored by consumers
- Provide transparency including naming MBC experts
- Do not hire MBC experts who lie in court
- Implement a system to monitor procedure harm
- Implement a medical harm hotline to help stop abuse
- Overhaul Liposuction Code 1356.6
- Have an agenda item on the falsification of records
- Create an independent Licensed Midwife-majority board
- Classify surgical battery as a criminal act
The MBC has blatantly disregarded the tort of battery, (unpermitted, unprivileged, intentional contact with another’s person). When the board drops a complaint of surgical battery, the police and D.A. will not investigate no matter how egregious the assault was.
Trustworthy vs. Dangerous and Deceptive
Founded in 1878, The Medical Board is supposed to distinguish between trustworthy physicians who are focused on treating illness, and dangerous and deceptive doctors.
In the past thirty years, a lucrative field grew focused on surgically altering bodies, mostly women’s. Cosmetic surgery is bolstered by manipulative advertising, false claims, and exploitive reality TV shows, which normalize dangerous and unnecessary procedures. Many trends go against science and cause health problems and death.
Multiple MBC accusations against plastic surgeons have shown up since August 2021 that include several cases of wrongful death. Surgeons do concurrent procedures, allow unlicensed technicians to operate, cover for fellows, etc. Consumers (mostly women) will continue to end up disabled, disfigured, diseased, and dead until foundational change occurs.
At the November MBC meeting, a woman related the story of how her mother died due to plastic surgery in 1996. The surgeon had dozens of complaints against him, but the MBC had not stopped him. Lack of regulations can make doctors feel invincible.
In 2019, plastic surgeon Kenneth Hughes came before the board for several counts including wrongful death. Attorneys for both sides said the expert for the MBC was corrupt and lied profusely. The case was dropped without any disciplinary action taken.
A public member on the board, appointed by Governor Newsom, produced and starred in an $800,000 documentary sponsored by a medical device company, which appears to be a conflict of interest. The film plays in part like an ad for liposuction.
Board challenges and new proposals
The medical board claims they do not have funds to do their job. The board voted to raise the cost of doctor licensing fees, but the CMA objected to the amount. The board also claims it needs more experts, but lacks the finances to pay entice them with better pay.
Typically, the oversight committees hold a Sunset Review hearing for the medical board every four years; in these hearings consumers object to this nefarious system, which allows dangerous doctors to remain in practice. They want prevention and justice. The 2021 review - which seemed to start out strongly in favor of consumer protection - ended up with a watered down bill due to CMA pressure.
On a possibly positive note, the board voted to back legislation to change the burden of proof requirement for doctor disciplines from beyond a shadow of doubt to preponderance of evidence. They also discussed the possibility of injured parties voices being heard by the board as well as doctor defendants and their lawyers. The question is: will the doctors’ lobbies block these efforts, as is their pattern?
(Sasha Lauren, author of The Paris Predicament, is a patient safety educator and CityWatch contributor. As an L.M.T. she gave over 30,000 hours of therapeutic massage and taught massage, relaxation, and behavioral health skills. Her approach is holistic and preventative. (The information presented in this article is not for personal medical or legal advice or instruction.)