Frequently Asked Questions
State medical boards work to protect the public’s health and safety through the proper licensing, disciplining and regulation of physicians. The 71 state medical boards in the United States and its territories license and discipline allopathic and osteopathic physicians and, in some jurisdictions, other health care professionals.
State medical boards investigate complaints from consumers, discipline physicians who violate the law, conduct physician evaluations and facilitate physician rehabilitation when appropriate. Additionally, state medical boards adopt policies and guidelines designed to improve the overall quality of health care in the state.
A state medical board is usually composed of physician and non-physician board members. Some boards are independent, exercising all licensing and disciplinary powers, while others are part of a larger umbrella agency, such as the Department of Health, exercising varied levels of responsibilities.
Most boards employ an administrative staff that includes the executive officer, attorneys and investigators, with legal services provided by the state’s attorney general office.
Applicants must submit proof of prior education and training, provide a detailed work history and complete a rigorous examination to assess their ability to apply knowledge, concepts and principles important in health care and patient safety. Additionally, applicants must reveal information regarding past medical history that may affect their ability to practice (including alcohol and substance abuse), arrests and convictions.
After initial licensure, physicians must re-register periodically to continue their active status. During this process, physicians must demonstrate that they have maintained acceptable ethical and medical practice standards and, in most states, must demonstrate that they have participated in a continuing medical education program.
Medical boards are responsible for determining when a physician’s professional conduct or medical practice ability warrants modification, suspension or revocation of a license to practice medicine.
To regulate licensed physicians, state board members oversee physician practice by reviewing complaints from patients, malpractice data, information from health care institutions, and reports from government agencies. When a board receives a complaint about a physician potentially violating the law, the board can investigate, hold hearings, and impose discipline, including fines, public reprimands, and suspension or revocation of a license. Regulators often place restrictions on a physician’s license to protect the public while a physician receives special training or rehabilitation aimed at an existing issue.
In the United States, all doctors, regardless of their specialties, must be licensed by a state medical board to legally practice medicine. Board certification, on the other hand, is a voluntary process that physicians can complete in addition to mandatory licensing, to demonstrate their expertise in a particular specialty or field of medical practice.
The Medical Practice Act defines unprofessional conduct in each state. Although laws vary from state to state, some examples of unprofessional conduct include the following:
- Physician abuse of a patient
- Inadequate record keeping
- Failing to meet the standard of care
- Prescribing drugs in excess or without legitimate reason
- Failing to meet continuing medical education requirements
- Conviction of a felony
- Delegating the practice of medicine to an unlicensed individual
Minor fee disagreements and poor customer service are not considered unprofessional conduct.
Whatever the complaint, physicians have the right to due process, which asserts that an individual is innocent until proven guilty, as the board investigates the allegation. Boards must adhere to established rules and principles to ensure that a physician is not treated unfairly, arbitrarily or unreasonably. In instances of severely egregious behavior, boards have authority to summarily suspend a physician’s license until an administrative law hearing can be scheduled.
The differences between a disciplinary action taken by a state medical board and a malpractice suit are significant. Disciplinary actions are those taken against physicians after a formal process of complaint, investigation and hearing by a state medical board.
While a sanction taken by a medical board against a physician indicates that a violation of the state’s Medical Practice Act has occurred, malpractice claims are not always accurate measures of a physician’s competence or a violation of the law. This is because anyone can file a malpractice suit without showing evidence of damage, and often malpractice insurance carriers opt to settle out of court rather than incur the expense of a court appearance. The physician’s guilt or innocence may or may not be factors in the decision. Medical boards may review malpractice reports and detect patterns of inappropriate actions in order to identify practitioners who may pose a danger to the public.
State medical boards make available a variety of valuable physician information on their individual state websites, known as “physician profiles.” State medical board profiles, which are available for no charge to consumers, usually include a physician’s licensure status and disciplinary history; more comprehensive profiles may include full board orders of disciplinary actions, malpractice judgments/settlements, and criminal convictions.
To further assist consumers researching their physicians, the Federation of State Medical Boards provides free public access to a national database of physician information. Known as Docinfo, this physician search tool provides consumers with a report that includes:
- Disciplinary actions taken by state medical boards
- Physician’s medical school and year of graduation
- Physician’s licensure history, including state name, date issued and license number
- American Board of Medical Specialties specialty
- Location information