In Florida, the practice of medicine is intertwined with two vast areas of law: civil and administrative. A physician alleged to have fallen below the standard of care by a patient and their attorney will find themselves the object of a civil suit. Alternatively, a physician in violation of the Professional or Medical Practice Acts of Florida (Fl. Stats. 456 et seq and 458 et seq) will now face a complaint from the State of Florida through the powers granted to the Department of Health (hereinafter DOH) and its subservient Board of Medicine. This discussion will be a broad overview of DOH complaints and the potential discipline a physician could face for a proven violation and final order. My sincere wish is that any physician receiving a DOH complaint seeks professional counsel given the potential gravity of an unassisted outcome.
A DOH complaint generally starts with a patient or allied worker’s complaint (by letter or online) sent to DOH alleging a failure by the physician to obey a portion of the Acts. For example, failure to render medical records to subsequent treating physicians, sexual harassment, abusive billing practices, disruptive behavior, unsympathetic delivery of care, and suspected drug or alcohol use to name a few. The Board of Medicine may also initiate a complaint of its own accord (sua sponte) as when a physician with an out-of-state medical license is disciplined by the foreign state or has denial of a license application and the physician fails to report said instance within 30 days to the Florida Board. Fl. Stats. § 458.331(1) (kk). Board actions following due process stretch from dismissal of the complaint up to permanent loss of license to practice medicine in the State of Florida.
A complaint will arrive at the address you have on file as your principal place of business by certified mail. The letter will outline the complaint against you, who made the complaint and a copy of the complaint along with the alleged statutory violations. You will have 20 calendar days to respond in writing to the Investigational Services Unit in Tampa who are charged with contacting you and gathering all the pertinent documents necessary to make a file which is then sent to the Prosecution Services Unit in Tallahassee for review and determination of probable cause to proceed or not. It follows, therefore, that the initial response to your received complaint is very important to preserve your rights and to seek a dismissal where rational.
Here are a few guidelines you should be aware of:
You must respond in 20 days or possibly be barred from making any further entries into your file
You have the right to see a complete copy of your file including outside reports you may not have been aware of—-but you must request it.
A state investigator may visit you at your office seeking information about your file and complaint. You should refuse to answer any of their questions. They are not there to help you. You are not obligated nor required to answer any questions no matter how authoritarian the investigator comes across. The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution protects you. Do not be deceived that by answering their questions the complaint will melt away under the weight of your reasonable explanations. Be polite but firm and refer all questions to your attorney.
Remember, your license and possibly your livelihood are directly in the State’s crosshairs.
Keep good written records of what you do, avoid conflict with patients and hospital staff, control your anger (difficult in today’s healthcare climate), and do what you’ve been trained to do——take care of your patients professionally.
Finally, give serious consideration to associating an attorney early on to protect your rights, your reputation, your license to practice and potentially your livelihood. You worked hard to get where you are. I know, so did I.
Dr. Fried, a retired surgeon, is an attorney with the Blanchard Law Firm of Ocala.