MARK H. LEQUIRE, M.D.
Who ensures the competency of my doctor? It’s an excellent question, and a recent U.S. Supreme Court case of two physicians convicted of overprescribing pain medications makes it even more important.
In Alabama, this duty is fulfilled by the Board of Medical Examiners and Medical Licensure Commission. Both the board and commission exist to protect patients from unprofessional, unethical and improperly trained physicians.
This is an incredibly valuable public service, but one that is often overlooked and sometimes misunderstood. A diverse group of 23 physicians with more than 640 years of medical experience, plus one non-physician member, serve on these two regulatory bodies. They take this responsibility seriously, recognizing that physician incompetence and unethical conduct can be harmful not only to patients but also to the public’s confidence in the profession.
The right to practice medicine is a privilege granted by the state, and no one can legally practice medicine in Alabama without a license. The work to protect patients in Alabama begins when the Board of Medical Examiners evaluates the qualifications of a license applicant. The board reviews the applicant’s medical education, medical examination results, work history and personal character. Ultimately, it assesses the applicant’s ability to safely and effectively care for patients and meet recognized standards of professional conduct.
The Board of Medical Examiners then certifies to the Licensure Commission those applicants who meet the requirements, and the commission issues a license granting the physician the privilege of practicing medicine in Alabama.
But the effort to protect patients doesn’t stop there. The board and commission continue to monitor and evaluate physicians to ensure that they maintain necessary standards, ethics and professional conduct. When a physician breaches these standards, it is up to the board and commission to determine whether a physician should be disciplined, up to and including revoking their license.
As part of this ongoing evaluation, complaints from patients and others play a major role. The board receives and investigates all complaints against physicians and physician assistants from patients, patient surrogates, other healthcare providers, law enforcement and members of the public. When the board receives a complaint about a physician, it has the power to investigate, hold hearings and issue subpoenas.
After the investigation is complete, the commission determines whether the conduct rose to the level of terminating the physician’s ability to practice in Alabama or whether some other measure is more appropriate.
With a focus on protecting patients, these regulatory agencies have a strong record of holding physicians accountable. In the last year alone, for example, they have formally disciplined over 50 physicians for offenses such as providing inadequate care, inappropriate prescribing and engaging in unprofessional conduct — including sexual misconduct and other boundary issues. In addition, the board has taken 26 administrative actions relating to prescribing deficiencies.
The board and commission are also engaged in ongoing, cooperative efforts to share licensure and disciplinary information with all other states and territories. This information is contained in a comprehensive, national database with information about all actively licensed physicians in the United States, as well as disciplinary actions dating back more than 50 years. This information is continuously updated since many physicians hold licenses to practice medicine in more than one state.
So, despite the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Ruan and Kahn that set a higher bar for prosecuting doctors and that might inhibit some criminal prosecutions by the federal government, the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners and the Medical Licensure Commission of Alabama continue their important work unhindered. Thanks to these two important agencies, Alabamians can be assured that only qualified doctors are licensed to practice medicine in Alabama and that those doctors are held to the highest standards of patient care.
Mark H. LeQuire, M.D.
Chairman, Alabama Board of Medical Examiners