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June 30th, 2009
02:46 PM ET

Doctor qualifications take center stage

By David Martin
CNN Medical Senior Producer

Michael Jackson’s sad and sudden death has brought the issue of physician qualifications to center stage.

Jackson’s personal doctor, Conrad Murray, was a cardiologist who was not board certified in cardiology. Board certification isn’t necessary to practice medicine, but many hospital systems require their doctors to be board certified in their specialties. Still, Murray had not been subject to any state or federal disciplinary in the last five years, according to HealthGrades, and Jackson reportedly got along well with him. That counts for something. In the coming days and weeks, investigators will determine whether doctors were prescribing narcotics for Jackson. For his part, Murray’s attorney has denied that Murray prescribed or administered the powerful painkillers Demerol or OxyContin to the pop star.

Unlike the rest of us, Jackson had the means to employ a personal physician, the kind of round-the-clock care that is usually privileged preserve of presidents and potentates.

When we choose a doctor, we simply want someone who will see us when we’re sick, who takes the time to listen, who can draw on knowledge and experience to find the right treatment when we need it. We assume the doctor is licensed. We assume if the doctor had been endangering patients, we’d know about it.

A couple of recent reports call that into question.

Medversant Technologies, which provides Web-based management tools for hospitals and others, recently reviewed the credentials of more than 7,000 practicing doctors and found that 1 percent were unlicensed or had licenses that were suspended or terminated because of state or federal sanctions; 6 percent more had expired licenses.

And last month, Public Citizen published a report taking a closer look at the National Practitioner Data Bank, designed to protect patients from incompetent or unprofessional physicians.

Hospitals that revoke or restrict a doctor’s privileges for more than 30 days because of misconduct or ineptitude are supposed to report this to the federal data bank.

But Public Citizen says hospitals look for ways to avoid reporting doctors. Some hospitals allow doctors to take a leave of absence rather than discipline them in a way that would require reporting to the database, the non-profit group said in the report, while others impose sanctions of 30 days or less to avoid reporting.

In 2006, the American Journal of Medical Quality published a study that found 60 to 75 percent of reportable actions were not reported.

How thoroughly have you checked out your doctor’s credentials? Have you ever gone to a doctor who you found out later was unqualified or unlicensed?

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