Brian Joseph of the Orange County Register says he often relies on tips for his story ideas, but he wanted to do something different.
An Investigative Reporters & Editors tip sheet suggested reading disciplinary filings. So in his spare time, he read about 50 filings from California’s 36 consumer protection agencies.
One thing stood out: Some doctors were getting two years’ probation for serious cases such as people dying or losing an organ, Brian says. “As a lay person, that seemed rather puny to me.”
His story highlights the factors such as burden of proof and costs that lead to settlements with light penalties. He writes some disciplinary settlements include:
“A probation term two years below recommendations for a San Bernardino osteopath who sent a patient home to his death after misreading ‘grossly abnormal’ EKG readings. No probation at all for a Rancho Palo Verdes anesthesiologist after one of his patients suffered severe brain damage. A public reprimand for a Costa Mesa cosmetic surgeon whose patient died following a liposuction procedure.”
While it seems incredulous, Brian points out the boards only focus on determining whether a person is competent to do the job. “They act in law enforcement fashion, but the end goal is not justice.”
I had Brian walk me through steps to get started on looking into disciplinary cases. He says each state is organized differently. Finding an online list of Wisconsin’s boards took a few minutes of searching. The state’s Department of Safety and Professional Services tracks disciplinary actions. It lists all of the professional boards online and users can access decisions.
The challenge is getting details because the documentation doesn’t include the most important pieces of information, he says. For instance, some documents listed victims only by initials. That meant he had to search by doctor names. To get information in cases where patients died, he called the coroner’s office, he says.
When he contacted families, many didn’t know disciplinary actions had been brought, he says.