A new online tool designed to help the public lodge complaints against medical doctors and other health care professionals is working, an official said during a recent Oklahoma Medical Board meeting.
Launched less than six months ago, the online complaint form has seen gripes against doctors and other licensed medical professionals increase significantly.
The Oklahoma Board of Medical Licensure and Supervision oversees thousands of doctors, physician assistants and other professionals working with patients in the state.
Doctors and other health care professionals can have their licenses revoked, suspended or placed on probation, depending on what the medical board decides. Punishments are usually meted out following complaints of substance abuse, overprescribing, sexual misconduct and other unprofessional behavior.
Reji Varghese, deputy executive director of the medical board, said the increased number of complaints isn't expected to cause any long-term hardships for the agency's five full-time investigators.
So far this year, the agency has fielded 305 complaints against medical doctors and other licensed health care professionals. At that pace, a record-setting 610 complaints are projected to be filed by the end of the year.
“It's a good thing ... we want the public to be aware they can file a complaint if they need to and we wanted to make it as easy as possible,” Varghese said. “Every complaint is looked at.”
Complaints against medical doctors and other health care professionals come from all over the place, although the general public is far and away the biggest source of the grievances, board records show.
Pharmacists, nurses, hospitals, insurance companies and other doctors all are listed in board records as sources of complaints. Some doctors, apparently, file formal complaints against themselves.
And while details of official disciplinary actions taken against licensed medical professionals are considered open records, complaints are not. They can even be made anonymously, although Varghese said those with an ax to grind may eventually be forced to reveal themselves.
“If it gets serious ... with attorneys and a full hearing before the board ... you may have to get up before the board and testify,” Varghese said. “That's all in public in an open meeting.”
While the board receives hundreds of complaints against licensees each year, a cursory examination of its records shows that only a small percentage lead to some kind of disciplinary action.
Between 2008 and 2012, the medical board never took action against more than 42 doctors in a given year.
In 2012, for instance, 34 medical doctors either had a formal complaint filed against them or were disciplined in some way by the medical board.
That same year the medical board received 397 complaints against doctors, who are the focus of most of the gripes received by the agency.
The medical board has fielded between 308 and 518 complaints since 2001, record show.
Increases in complaints, in the past, have come following some sort of proactive move by the medical board. Between 2006 and 2009, the board aired public service announcements on radio and television and staffed an informational booth at the Oklahoma State Fair.
Varghese said the new online complaint form has “doubled” the medical board's caseload but expressed little concern about his staff's ability to handle the larger workload.
“We have a group that meets every week to discuss the complaints,” he said. “We have streamlined a lot of things we do with automation, so we manage to use the resources that are available to us.”
Varghese said every complaint is looked at by investigators, although some of them are easy to eliminate early on.
“A lot of them are against nurses, dentists ... others we don't license,” he said. “Not a big percentage, but it's some, for sure.”
Other complaints against doctors and other licensees “just aren't violations.”
“It may seem like the doctor is in violation of the terms of his license, but sometimes complaints just aren't violations,” Varghese said.
But for most complaints, the common fate is one of uncertainty.
“About 50 percent of the complaints end up being an open investigation,” Varghese said, adding that he wasn't sure exactly how many open cases exist in the board's files.
“So, that shows we actually go in and look at them.”