New York has overhauled its physician-oversight law, giving the state medical board more power, consumers more information, and doctors less confidentiality.

Previously, charges against physicians had remained sealed until the Board for Professional Medical Conduct ruled on their validity. Now, if the three-member board unanimously decides a hearing is warranted, the charges will be made public within five days after the doctor is notified. Even if the three-member board is divided, it may vote to go public anyway. Either way, disclosure is tied to holding a hearing, not on reaching a determination.

In addition, the results of those hearings will be made public, so consumers will know when a doctor is exonerated as well as when misconduct charges are upheld.

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“This new law gives the medical conduct investigative program more tools to better and more quickly identify physicians who engage in misconduct,” comments Richard F. Daines, MD, who heads New York’s health department.

The law was drafted after a Long Island case garnered national attention. Last November, the state sent letters to over 10,000 people warning that a physician may have exposed them to infection by using the same syringe on multiple patients.

Almost three years after first discovery that the doctor’s actions had caused at least one patient to contract hepatitis C, letters went out. According to newspaper reports, the doctor stopped re-using syringes in 2005 but prolonged negotiations with lawyers over releasing his records caused the 34-month delay in notifying patients that they had been endangered.

The new law allows the state to put an immediate stop to dangerous practices without waiting for a hearing, giving doctors one day to produce office records for inquiry. It also gives the medical board access to the personal medical records of physicians accused of drug or alcohol addiction, eliminating the need for court orders. The board can order a clinical competency at will.

The physician charged with re-using syringes had a long history of malpractice litigation, with 11 payouts over 10 years. The board is now empowered to use malpractice histories to initiate investigations. Doctors are mandated to update their profiles on the health department Web site every six months and to include any disciplinary actions the state has taken against them.