Bad Doctors: How does the North Carolina medical board handle complaints and criminal records?

The vast majority of doctors are good people living up to the noble profession they’ve dedicated their lives to.

But about 5% of North Carolina’s doctors and physician assistants had complaints filed against them last year with the state medical board. In some cases, they faced consequences, but in many cases, they didn’t.

We wanted to know what happens when a complaint is filed with North Carolina’s medical board, so 9 Investigates took questions to Brian Blankenship, the chief legal officer for the medical board.

You expect to be in the care of a trustworthy, skilled, respectful medical professional when you go to the doctor’s office. When that’s not the case, a complaint can be filed.

That’s when Blankenship and his team of investigators step in to see if the complaint can be proven and to recommend a consequence.

“It doesn’t matter what I know, it matters what I can prove,” Blankenship said in an interview with Channel 9′s Hunter Sáenz.

In many cases that we found and looked into, that proof has proven difficult to come by for the medical board investigators.

The board has found doctors breaking the rules, but often they get only a letter of concern. That’s essentially a warning that says, “Don’t do that again.”

Some doctors’ licenses have been suspended, but those suspensions have been quickly lifted.

Examples of bad actions

One instance involved a family medicine doctor in Charlotte who admitted to having substance abuse issues. A mother reported that her 19-year-old son with disabilities was at a local 7-Eleven when that doctor drove up and asked him to help fill a prescription of oxycodone for her. The young man told investigators the doctor offered to pay him, she wrote his name and address on the prescription, drove him to get his identification, and took him to a pharmacy where the prescription was filled.

A medical board investigator got surveillance video and matched the doctor’s car when she dropped the 19-year-old off at his house.

That doctor’s license was “indefinitely suspended.” Seven months later, her license was reinstated, but she couldn’t prescribed controlled substances.

“How can she still be able to practice,” Sáenz asked Blankenship.

He couldn’t talk about that doctor’s treatment, specifically, but he provided insight about their mission.

“If we can treat the person, and get them back into their profession safely, having treated the illness that led to the conduct, that’s the equitable thing to do,” Blankenship said.

BY THE NUMBERS: What kinds of complaints are being filed with the NC Medical Board? (2023 Report)

Looking through state records found more cases that got the attention of 9 Investigates.

One Charlotte doctor gave up his right to practice medicine in South Carolina after allegations that he “traded sex for medications” and “raped a patient.” He’s still licensed to practice in North Carolina. That’s because he was “never convicted of any crime” and “several witnesses ... testified he had moral character,” according to records with the state medical board.

In Raleigh, a maternal medicine doctor admitted to a brazen road rage attack when he punched a driver in the face multiple times after he was allegedly cut off. He then drove away without calling 911. The medical board reprimanded him and ordered him to a health program, but he’s still licensed to practice.

“Are North Carolinians well protected by doctors?” Sáenz asked Blankenship.

“I can assure the public, if the evidence supports taking action, we will take the action supported by the evidence,” Blankenship said.

In 2023, the board did take action against 204 doctors. The board suspended 16 licenses and revoked three of them.

BY THE NUMBERS: How are cases opened with the NC Medical Board? (2023 Report)

Blankenship acknowledges their process isn’t perfect, but he insists it works.

“Again, facts really matter. So is it a bad person with a medical degree? Is it a doctor who made a mistake? Or is it a bad doctor, meaning they don’t have the competence to do the thing that they are now doing?” Blankenship said.

What’s the process?

The North Carolina State Medical Board is the oldest medical board in the country.

But for the first seven years of its existence, the board just issued licenses and couldn’t actually regulate those who had been issued a license, Blankenship told Sáenz.

“Over time, I think the General Assembly recognized that once somebody has issued a license, there needs to be someone to police and regulate the profession,” Blankenship said.

“So we have the authority by the General Assembly, to issue licenses, and then to regulate those who have been issued a license. And it says right there for the benefit protection of the people in North Carolina.”

(In this video, Blankenship explains who can file a complaint, how to do it, and what happens next)

Advice from Action 9

Even if you feel the system is working and the watchdogs are doing their job, there are still steps you can take to be your own best advocate when going to the doctor. Action 9′s Jason Stoogenke has these tips for you.

  • Ask friends and family who they use and like.
  • Ask your ‘primary’ what specialist ‘he or she’ goes to. Many will tell you.
  • Check with your insurance company. Make sure the doctor is in-network.
  • Ask which hospitals the doctor works with. Make sure you’re ok with them.
  • Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion.
  • Don’t be afraid to “interview” your doctor - make an appointment to meet the provider. You’ll have to pay the co-pay, but it may be worth it to see if this a person you want to hire.
  • See if your doctor is in good standing with the state. If there are any issues on his or her record. You can read all about them.

You can look up your doctor’s medical board record with these links:

Here’s where you can research your North Carolina doctor.

Here’s where you can research your South Carolina doctor.

(WATCH: Higher-quality maternity healthcare begins with hiring diverse staff, Lancaster doctor says)

Hunter Sáenz

Hunter Sáenz, wsoctv.com

Hunter is a reporter for Channel 9.

Michael Praats

Michael Praats, wsoctv.com

Michael is an investigative producer for Channel 9.

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