Minnesota’s Star Tribune newspaper recently published an investigative series profiling how the state Board of Medical Practice is mishandling complaints about health-care providers. The series shines new light on the board’s inability to meet its obligation to protect patients from doctors who are practicing substandard medicine.

According to the report, the state Board consistently failed to discipline clinicians despite numerous complaints. Of the 728 complaints received last year, the Board initiated 32 disciplinary actions. According to the watchdog group Public Citizen, this low rate of disciplinary action consistently places Minnesota near the bottom of their annual report ranking state medical boards. In the 2010 report, Minnesota’s Medical Board finished last — with a discipline rate of 1.29 serious actions per 1,000 cited health-care providers.

Robert Leach, the medical board’s executive director, told Star Tribune reporters that the Public Citizen report fails to account for the state’s non-punitive, corrective-action approach to disciplining clinicians. According to Leach, the Board doesn’t usually discipline a clinician for a single issue, but rather it looks to see if there is a pattern of practice.

However, the Star Tribune revealed that in dozens of cases the infractions were serious enough that the clinician in question lost hospital privileges, yet the Board took no action.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the Minnesota Medical Board, unlike 19 other states, does not allow public access to malpractice reports, revoked hospital privileges or surgical errors. The Board also does not make it a policy to disclose prior disciplinary action taken against a clinician by a medical board in another state.

Leach says that legislative approval would be necessary if the Minnesota Board were to make clinician information more accessible to the public. Currently, the Board provides disciplinary reports and physician-reported criminal convictions, but the Board does not verify this information.