Doctors don’t get investigated for being quacks

A doctor in our area was recently indicted for allegedly running a “pill mill”. According to local news reports, patients were recruited to come in and ask for narcotics and the doctor received massive cash payments to write the prescriptions. After the guy was nabbed, his patients (the real ones and the others) spread out in the community looking for new doctors to take care of them (or to write them more narcotic prescriptions).

Another doctor in our area specializes in so-called “holistic” medicine. He runs expensive tests that aren’t covered by insurance. Many of these tests are either of questionable significance and utility, or are run in labs widely known for their “variable” quality. He puts his patients on unconventional mixes of medications and supplements, many of which he apparently sells. He and many doctors like him send their patients to “real” doctors to take care of the rest of the patient’s healthcare.

In the first case, the cops caught up with the guy. The fallout for patients will last for a while as the scramble to find new primary care physicians (there’s a shortage, you know), or have to suddenly deal with a narcotic problem after their source dries up.

In the second case, the doctor will continue to collect cash from patient to whom is is very kind, and who get the answers they want from a kind man.

The second doctor isn’t doing anything illegal. He’s practicing bad medicine, outside of the standard of care, but as far as I can tell, he’s not breaking any laws. And his patients love him. He listens, spends time, and tells them what they want to hear. I looked into ways to get this guy investigated, to have some sort of third party look over his practices, but I couldn’t find one. Complaints against healthcare professionals have to be lodged by patients or their agent. As far as I can tell, in this state there is no way for anyone other than a patient to complain about bad doctors.

This makes some sense. If someone opens a practice across the street from me and my patients start fleeing there, who says I wouldn’t call in a complaint just to hurt my competition? (I wouldn’t obviously, and there’s no incentive even if I were a bad guy. There are plenty of patients for all of us.)

But while doctors clearly breaking the law can get caught and prosecuted, doctors practicing obviously bad medicine are pretty safe. Their patients often love them and wouldn’t think of lodging a complaint. Even if every other doctor in the community knows another doctor is bad news, there’s nothing they can really do.

I may not be completely right. Maybe there’s a way to complain to the medical board in this state. Maybe not. I couldn’t find one, and I’ve never heard of it happening.

Doctors get disciplined if patients complain, maybe get busted for breaking the law, maybe get sued if a patient is unsatisfied, but they don’t get investigated for being quacks.

I don’t have a solution to propose that wouldn’t create layers of bureaucracy and put good doctors at risk of false allegations. But there must be some way to deal with quacks. Their work harms patients and makes my job difficult as I try to tease apart what they’ve done to my patients.

“PalMD” is an internal medicine physician who blogs at White Coat Underground.

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