Physician Background Screening: Are Your Patients Safe@f4

Senior Director of Marketing

Of the roughly 317 million people living in the United States today, about 12.4 million are arrested every year (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011). That’s equivalent to almost the entire population of the state of Pennsylvania. While physicians may not account for a significant portion of these numbers, it is important to take into account that physicians have been convicted of serious crimes. Looking more closely into the physician’s previous history could have prevented some of these unfortunate cases. Which means that as a medical services professional, you have an opportunity to mitigate risk for your healthcare organization and most importantly, to protect patient and staff safety.

Unfortunately, given the stresses associated with the unpredictable nature of the workplace coupled with easy access to controlled substances, physicians are highly susceptible to developing substance abuse problems. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that as much as 8.7 percent of the U.S. population has at one point abused illicit or prescription drugs. Some figures have indicated that number may be closer to 12-16% for some healthcare professions. A record of previous drug abuse is one of the strongest indicators of future addictive behaviors, and those behaviors could have terrible consequences for patients. This is just one reason why thorough criminal background screenings and drug testing on prospective physicians are becoming a necessity in the healthcare industry.

Doctors with a Dark Side

There are 70 medical and osteopathic boards within the United States and its five territories, but only 46 of them in 36 states have the ability to require criminal background screening as a condition of medical licensure. Additionally, since 2006, the Association of American Medical Colleges has strongly recommended criminal background checks on all new applicants. When offenders like Joseph Michael Swango go undetected, the harm suffered by victims is devastating. “Dr.” Swango, a blonde, all-American, National Merit Scholarship finalist, murdered as many as 60 patients while serving as a physician at hospitals around the U.S. and abroad. How could Swango, who had at one point served a 2-year prison term for poisoning sixteen of his co-workers while serving as an EMT, manage to continually be hired for positions that put vulnerable individuals under his direct care? That’s the question that’s leading states to consider stronger legislation requiring strict background screening standards for practicing physicians and other medical professionals.

More recently, a 2010 article from the Chicago Tribune explains how a woman discovered the physician who performed her ovarian surgery was also on the Illinois registry of sex offenders after a Google search. The Tribune’s review found there were at least 16 sex offenders in the State of Illinois who have held medical licenses between 1995 and 2010. According to Illinois’ records, most doctors convicted of sex crimes often go unpunished and when punished, the discipline can be as mild as a brief license suspension. Most alarming, however, is the fact that the woman’s doctor in the article, Nercy Jafari, was never punished by the disciplinary agency for the sex crime.

In 2012, after her mother’s unfortunate death, Dianne Lopp discovered the hospital’s doctor had a lengthy history with the Oklahoma State Board of Medical Licensure and Supervision. Dr. Kenneth Kirk, the doctor responsible for her mother’s care, has been diagnosed as bipolar, with addictions to alcohol and multiple drugs, according to medical records. Despite Dr. Kirk’s lengthy list of red flags and reoccurring issues stemming from his medical school years in the 80’s, the Oklahoma Medical Board voted in 2011 to allow him to prescribe certain controlled substances to patients. Cases like that of Dr. Jafari and Dr. Kirk demonstrate that healthcare organizations and medical staffing departments are taking on a significant level of risk by assuming that the State medical licensing boards and agencies are effectively disciplining physicians with criminal convictions.

Across the Board

Today the Federation of State Medical Boards reports that only 40 boards in 31 states have access to the Federal Bureau of Investigation database. They also report that fourteen states have no authority to conduct checks on physicians and medical professionals. Since it cannot be assumed that the medical boards in all 50 states are performing background checks on physicians at the time of licensure, it is important that each hospital or healthcare facility perform these checks at least at time of appointment. While background checks do not necessarily guarantee patients and co-workers protection from everyone’s future actions, they are a valuable resource for ensuring workplace and patient safety by weeding out applicants with a proven history of criminal activity or patterns of criminally negligent behavior.

Here is a state-by-state breakdown of which State Medical Boards have authority to perform criminal background checks as a condition of licensure:

Breakdown of States and Boards that can access Criminal Backgrounds, the FBI Database and Require Fingerprints


PreCheck Background Screening Resource Kit

Source: “Authority to Run Criminal Background Checks: Board-by-Board Overview,” Federation of State Medical Boards, Feb. 24