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A look at the numbers: How many doctors get in trouble in Montana

Butte psychiatrist Dr. Bennett Braun, who is being sued by a former patient for alleged negligent care, is not the only doctor in Montana who has faced allegations of poor care in recent years.

In fact, between 2014 and 2018, 234 actions of one kind or another were taken against Montana doctors. 

Most of these — 167 of them — involved medical malpractice lawsuits that resulted in payments ranging from as little as $3,000 to as much as about $2 million.

During the same four-year period, the Montana Board of Medical Examiners took disciplinary action against doctors 53 times.

These statistics come from an analysis of available information from the National Practitioner’s Data Bank, an online database run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and established in 1986 to enable state medical boards to share information about bad doctors.

But Robert Oshel, retired associate director of the data bank, said last week that the 167 figure doesn't accurately portray the total number of malpractice lawsuits filed between 2014 and 2018.

“We’re talking about the year the payment was made, not the year the alleged malpractice took place,” he said.

Plus, not every lawsuit is won and not every instance of medical malpratice is litigated, he said.

As for the 53 instances of disciplinary action by the Montana Board of Medical Examiners, it is not known what specific actions were taken and against which doctors they were taken.

Individual doctors’ information is kept confidential in the database, Oshel said. 

While much is not known about these 53 disciplinary actions, some information can be gleaned from publicly available data, such as:

  • 17 of those 53 physicians were disciplined because of licensure actions in other states;
  • 17 licenses were suspended, but whether the 17 suspensions are the same as the 17 who faced licensure actions in other states is not known;
  • nine doctor's licenses were suspended on an emergency basis by the board;
  • nine doctors had their licenses revoked by the board;
  • four doctors faced reprimand or censure;
  • the board reconsidered a previous licensure action 15 of the 53 times, likely because doctors asked the board to reassess the penalty or threatened the board with a lawsuit to get a lesser penalty, according to Oshel.

In addition to the 167 medical malpractice payments and the 53 board actions against doctors from 2014 to 2018, hospitals reportedly took six actions against Montana doctors, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration took five actions against physicians, and the federal Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General took actions against three doctors.

In 2018 alone there were 35 medical malpractice lawsuits against Montana doctors that resulted in payments and four disciplinary actions taken by the Board of Medical Examiners. No Montana hospital reported actions taken against doctors for clinical privileges in 2018, but the DEA took two actions against Montana doctors and the Office of Inspector General took one action against a doctor in the state. 

Erin Loranger, public information officer for the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, which oversees the Board of Medical Examiners, said there are two ways to find out if a Montana physician has faced disciplinary action by the board.

Looking up a specific doctor requires going to the board's website and searching the “Licensee Lookup” feature. But doing so only turns up information on whether the board has taken a disciplinary action against a doctor, which doesn’t always tell the full story.

For example, a search of Braun does not show that the DEA searched his office in 2017, found he was practicing outside the scope of his license and struck a deal with him that led to the doctor surrendering his narcotics license.

The board’s website also allows visitors to look at the board's adjudication panel’s public agenda for the past twelve months, Loranger said. Within the past year, eight medical professionals — four medical doctors and four paramedics — have appeared before the adjudication panel for different reasons. For instance, a recent meeting of the adjudication panel led to a Montana doctor’s license being restricted because another state disciplined the doctor.

The Federation of State Medical Boards also has a database the public can use to look up a specific doctor anywhere in the nation. A search for Braun shows that his Illinois medical license was suspended in 1999 and reinstated in 2001 and that he has an active license in Montana. It does not say why his license was suspended in Illinois.

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Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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