Patient Protection, Rogue ‘Stem Cell’ Clinics, California’s Medical Regulators and $18.6 Million

The headline in California’s largest circulation newspaper was tough:

“Botched surgeries and death: How the California Medical Board keeps negligent doctors in business”

The headline capped an article this week in the Los Angeles Times, which counts about 1.3 million readers daily. The piece detailed the findings from the Times’ analysis of 90,000 complaints to the medical board over 13 years. 

The Times investigation found a “pattern of lenient discipline imposed by the board, which has long battled allegations by patients, consumer advocates and others that it goes easy on negligent doctors and fails to protect patients.”

The Times article, written by Jack Dolan and Kim Christiansen, dealt with the most egregious cases of patient harm by physicians. It did not deal with matters involving California’s snake oil “stem cell” clinics. But the Times piece does shed light on the likely reasons behind the very slow walk that the state medical board has taken in connection with the hundreds of dubious “stem cell” clinics operating in the Golden State. 

In 2018, the board said it was going to look into the problems with the clinics. Since then it has done nothing of significance to deal with the rogue operations. Other states, such as New York, have been much more aggressive. 

The Los Angeles Times investigation makes it clear that the medical board acts as little more than an arm of the industry that it purports to regulate. This is not entirely new. Many of the state’s regulatory boards have been captured by the industries that they are supposed to oversee. 

It is also clear that the board’s failures to protect the public against bad actors damage the medical profession as a whole. Allowing incompetent physicians to operate severely erodes public trust -- not to mention the harm inflicted on patients. The impact can be easily seen in the many reader comments on the Times story.

What the Times has laid out eclipses the issues involving California’s rogue “stem cell” operations -- at least so far. It would be hard to expect the board to deal with the clinics when it has failed to deal with more grievous matters.

However, the problems do not start or stop with the board. The attorney general’s office, which handles legal matters for the board, and the legislature deserve some serious scrutiny in this regard. Gov. Newsom should address the issues. He appoints nearly all the members of the board. He should ask them all to resign and appoint a new panel. Meantime, conscientious members of the legislature should muscle through legislation addressing the problems with the board’s structure. 

One would imagine that an ad hoc group of concerned physicians, scientists, medical ethicists and good government groups could also mount an influential drive to support legislation to overhaul the medical board to better protect the public. 

It is not likely to be easy. The powerful California Medical Association (CMA), which represents 50,000 physicians, has already successfully squelched efforts to better regulate the state’s doctors.

California Healthline, in an article by Samantha Young, reported last month that advocates of reform are “hamstrung by a legislature beholden to the CMA, whose 50,000 pediatricians, surgeons and other physicians are influential members of every lawmaker’s district.

“The California Medical Association is one of the most prolific campaign contributors in Sacramento and has given to Newsom and all but one of the 119 lawmakers currently serving in the state legislature.

“In addition to making campaign contributions directly to lawmakers, the association spent $18.6 million between Jan. 1, 2011, and March 30, 2021.”

Lack of public trust in the medical profession is one of the issues behind the slowdown in Covid vaccinations. It is an element in the upsurge of “alternative” and sometimes worthless health care choices. It is of considerable concern as stem cell therapies come online. Suspicion and mistrust of medical providers, for example, is a constant refrain in connection with proposed cellular therapies for sickle cell disease.

It is past time for the state to recognize that its job is to protect patients -- not to protect shady and incompetent physicians who deal out dubious and expensive treatments.

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