Last February, an ABC2 News investigation showed you alarming delays in discipline for Maryland doctors. We found some dealing with drug abuse, sexual misconduct and other charges who were allowed to continue practicing for years without any action being taken. Since then, much has changed at the Maryland Board of Physicians.
Stunning allegations emerged this week, detailing how a Baltimore doctor videotaped his clients at their most vulnerable. The case involving Johns Hopkins Doctor Nikita Levy is the latest example of a local doctor behaving badly, but it's certainly not the first.
Perry Hall's Bryan Hannan says he knows the pain that comes with learning a doctor can break your trust. He tells us, "I don't know if you ever have full closure." In 2005, Hannan’s mother, Janet, died after lengthy cosmetic surgery at a Baltimore County clinic.
In the years following her death, the Hannan family discovered the physician who operated on Janet had broken state guidelines by stringing together too many surgeries.
But records show it took the Maryland board of physicians six years to revoke the doctor's license. The wait, according to Hannan, was excruciating, “It was definitely an emotional rollercoaster."
The Hannans experienced ups and downs as they waited years for action. But their case is not the only one with a delay. Last year, ABC2 News Investigators examined discipline files for almost 50 Maryland doctors, uncovering alarming delays.
Our investigation discovered that in more than one-third of those discipline cases, it took the board more than two years to suspend or revoke a physician's license, even when accusations of drug abuse, sexual misconduct and dangerous practices were involved. Action in some cases took as long as seven years.
But Maryland’s Health Secretary Doctor Joshua Sharfstein says, that was then, "We're in a much better place with Maryland's Board of Physicians." Fast forward 12 months and you’ll find Sharfstein talking much differently about the organization, citing how much has changed.
He says many of the differences are as a result of intense scrutiny by the state legislature and an independent panel led by Dr. Jay Perman at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
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Lawmakers who have been reviewing the board have also noticed a difference. During a hearing that served as a follow-up to a Sunset Review, state Senator Karen Montgomery, pointed out, "There is finally a grip on what has been an on-going problem for at least 13 years and probably longer."
Board insiders say the problems included communication breakdowns, disorganization, use of dated sanctioning guidelines and a backlog of complaints.
But much of those issues have been tackled by a new executive director, Carole Catalfo and chair, Dr. Andrea Mathias.
Mathias says, “It was a tremendous amount of work but we weren't without guidance and we weren't without a shared vision."
The vision that has directed the board in recent months was handed down to Mathias - by lawmakers who made 46 specific recommendations during the initial Sunset Review hearing last winter.
Perman’s panel also suggested changes, including splitting discipline cases into two groups to move the process along and cut down the backlog of complaints.
Mathias says that change is helping, “We're seeing things move through in a matter of months now."
And we found proof of success in the board files.
ABC2 News Investigators looked at records for 14 doctors disciplined in the last year and found eight had their licenses suspended or revoked within nine months of when the board was notified.
That’s well below the mandated guidelines for doctor discipline in Maryland.
But even as patients and doctors wait for action, they’re now armed with more information. For the first time, charges are now posted online against doctors in the discipline chain.
As a result, Mathias says, you'll know sooner about potential problems, although charges are not an indication of guilt.
Bryan Hannan supports that change, saying, "Without all the facts I don't know how a patient can be expected to make an intelligent decision. Full disclosure is the way to go." He’s glad to see the board being more transparent, opening up as it attempts to better protect you.
As for whether they’ll continue long-term, executive director Carole Catalfo says, "I don't anticipate that people would naturally assume that everything is now changed and it will never be bad again.
On the other hand I hope they see that the motivation and the procedures that have been put in place are there for the good of everybody and that we have every intention of continuing this good record."
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