SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - In the past three years, more than 150 San Diego doctors have been disciplined for everything ranging from negligence to sexual abuse.
10News has spent months looking into the state board that investigates bad doctors.
Critics argue that the Medical Board of California has serious flaws that could put patients in danger.
“I think we've had a number of them which is alarming,” says San Diego-based patient safety advocate Marian Hollingsworth. She’s talking about the sizable number of local doctors who've recently been included in news reports for serious matters. For example, Oceanside doctor Edgar Manzanera was arrested this summer after being accused of sexually assaulting patients with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
A few months ago, San Diego doctor Mark Zweifach got his license back after he'd had it taken away for watching child pornography on his computer at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in El Cajon. “I didn't collect it. I didn't produce it. I didn't distribute it, but I viewed it,” he told the state medical board at a recent hearing.
This April, San Diego anesthesiologist Bradley Hay's license was surrendered, following the disturbing allegation that he passed out in a hospital bathroom after injecting himself with an opioid medication. An alleged victim’s attorney told 10News, “Instead of administering the medication to the patient, [the doctor] administered it to himself to get high.”
Also in April, San Diego's Dr. Bret Gerber was issued a citation related to his arrest for apparently having ecstasy, psychedelic mushrooms, and cocaine. He agreed to a diversion program with the state medical board.
“The board's mission is consumer protection and it takes that mission very seriously,” says Carlos Villatoro, spokesperson for the Medical Board of California. 10News interviewed Villatoro when the board held its quarterly meeting in San Diego this October. The board is in charge of overseeing the licensing of physicians in the state.
10News wanted to know if San Diego has more disciplined doctors than other parts of the state. In July, we asked the board for information, like, the number of gross negligence, unprofessional conduct and sexual misconduct cases in our area compared to other areas. The board replied that it would cost 10News $6,596.80.
So, we turned to 4PatientSafety.org, a watchdog website that Hollingsworth helped start with advocate Eric Andrist, after she struggled to get information from the board about her own father’s medical treatment, when he was given a cocktail of psychotropic prescriptions.
“He was drugged out of his mind which led to his death,” says Hollingsworth.
4PatientSafety.org draws its information from the medical board, court records and news reports. According to the site, since 2015, disciplinary action has been taken against 156 San Diego doctors, 76 for unprofessional conduct, 81 for gross negligence and 22 for sexual misconduct.
Hollingsworth says she hopes this site gives people the user-friendly tools that the board's website lacks.
We asked Villatoro about the board website’s accessibility, given users often have to scroll through dozens of pages of documents to find accusations against physicians. “We want people to read the documents. The medical board wants people to be informed,” said Villatoro.
The board argues that patients can sign up for license alerts, and follow disciplinary actions through the phone app and social media platforms.
“I had 4 kids. I was not going to be looking up the doctor every single time we went in for bronchitis or a sprained ankle or ear infection but that's what they want you to do,” says Hollingsworth.
Advocates are also critical of some board investigations that seem to drag on. For example, in 2017, San Marcos doctor Manuel Tanguma surrendered his license after several patients accused him of groping and other sex acts in the exam room. A year and seven months passed between the board's first accusation and his license being put on interim suspension.
This May, our cameras captured former San Diego psychiatrist Leon Fajerman leaving jail with a towel over him to hide his face. He's since pleaded guilty to a felony charge of having sexual contact with seven patients. In his case, nine months passed between the board's accusation and his license getting surrendered.
Villatoro explains that if an accusation against a physician has not been adjudicated, there’s no legal requirement for a physician to notify a patient when he or she is being investigated. “When a physician receives an accusation, it doesn't mean that they're automatically guilty,” he adds.
He says the board believes doctors deserve due process and investigations must be thorough, which can take time.
In some situations, he adds that the board can petition to immediately suspend a doctor from practicing if there’s evidence that patients are being put in imminent danger.
We asked Hollingsworth why, in certain situations, police officers are put on paid leave during investigations, but not doctors. “Doctors are put on a pedestal,” she explains. “We’re not anti-doctor. We're pro-patient and anti-bad doctor. We want as many good doctors as we can get."
A detailed flow chart of the board’s investigation and enforcement process can be found here