Minnesota’s Star Tribune newspaper recently published an investigative series profiling how the state Board of Medical Practice is mishandling complaints about physicians. The series shines new light on the board’s inability to meet its obligation to protect patients from doctors who are practicing substandard medicine.

According to the report, the board consistently failed to discipline doctors despite numerous complaints. Of the 728 complaints received last year, the board initiated 32 disciplinary actions. According to the watchdog group Public Citizen, this low rate of disciplinary action consistently places Minnesota near the bottom of their annual report ranking state medical boards. In the 2010 report, the board finished last—with a discipline rate of 1.29 serious actions per 1,000 cited doctors.

Robert Leach, the board’s executive director, told Star Tribune reporters that the Public Citizen report fails to account for the state’s non-punitive, corrective-action approach to disciplining clinicians. According to Mr. Leach, the Board doesn’t usually discipline a clinician for a single issue, but rather it looks to see if there is a pattern of practice.

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However, the Star Tribune revealed that in dozens of cases the infractions were serious enough that the physician in question lost hospital privileges, yet the board took no action.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the board, unlike those in 19 other states, does not allow public access to malpractice reports, revoked hospital privileges, or surgical errors. The board also does not make it a policy to disclose prior disciplinary action taken against a clinician by a medical board in another state.

Leach says legislative approval would be necessary if the board were to make clinician information more accessible to the public. Currently, the board provides disciplinary reports and physician-reported criminal convictions, but the board does not verify this information.