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California case shows need for checking doctors' backgrounds

Yvette Chambers filed a complaint against Dr. Laurence Reich after a gynecological exam in 2000.


Federation of State Medical Boards:



LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Yvette Chambers said she wasn't comfortable with the way her doctor touched her, or with his questions about her sex life during a gynecological exam at a Los Angeles-area clinic.

"I was questioning myself as to why I felt so uncomfortable, because it's a doctor, he's a doctor. Look at him he's in a doctor's (office), his beard's cleanly cut," Chambers said.

Then, she says, he asked her out to lunch.

"At that point I realized 'eww, eww, I have just been molested. I have just been violated. He just asked me out,' " Chambers said. ( Watch what happened to her doctor -- 5:15)

Chambers filed a complaint against Dr. Laurence Reich after the February 2000 appointment, adding to a list of allegations that date back to the 1970s, according to documents on file with the California Osteopathic Medical Board -- which regulates osteopaths but not medical doctors. Osteopaths have different training than medical doctors but are treated the same under California law.

This case illustrates the wisdom of checking a doctor's background if any suspicions arise. There were about 700,000 doctors, including osteopaths, practicing in the United States last year, and 5,263 -- or less than 1 percent -- were disciplined for a variety of infractions, according to the Federation of State Medical Boards.

Physicians are licensed and disciplined by individual state medical boards, so that's the best place to check to see if a doctor has had complaints or disciplinary action taken against him or her.

"States can do as little or as much as they want," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group.

The California Osteopathic Medical Board's Web site shows that it has taken action against Reich, but it provides few details.

The site shows that he "successfully completed" a 10-year probation period in 1994 and shows that an accusation was filed in 2003. It says that "case is pending. Physician has not yet had a hearing nor been found guilty of these charges."

The listing does not show that he had his license suspended in 1982, before he was put on probation.

It also does not say that he was arrested in 2002 on sexual battery charges and pleaded no contest to one count of sexual exploitation by a physician, a misdemeanor.

Reich and his attorney could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts by CNN.

The state osteopathic medical board is scheduled to hold a hearing on his case in February. Reich is free to treat patients until it issues a decision.

The site also lets users know how to get the full public case file.

Those documents include allegations that he fondled one woman during an exam, asked her if it felt good and then kissed her. Another woman said that Reich was sexually excited during an exam and asked her to stimulate herself so that he could diagnose an infection. Another said he asked her to stimulate herself in front of him and later asked her to demonstrate an oral sex technique on his thumb.

Wolfe said that while restaurants and cars get regular inspections and safety checks, doctors can, for the most part, keep their licenses for life.

"There isn't anywhere near the scrutiny -- Consumer Reports regularly tests auto safety, so if you want to buy a car and want to find out the comparisons between one car and another in terms of safety there are objective data there," Wolfe said. "There's just nothing like that for physicians."

"What you see on the Web site is the tiny fraction of physicians that have done such horrendous things that they have come to medical board attention and, depending on what state they've gotten in, they've either gotten a slap on the wrist or they may have their license revoked or suspended," Wolfe said.

Dr. James Thompson, head of the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSM), says that 80 percent of doctors facing disciplinary action have licenses in more than one state.

Because each board is independent, the only way to do a thorough check is to contact the boards in all 50 states.

There are services that will do that for a fee. The FSM's will check out physicians for $9.95 a report.

"A disciplinary action against a physician doesn't necessarily mean he's bad; someone with no record of disciplinary action isn't necessarily good," Thompson said. "Check with friends and other physicians when checking out a doctor."

Thompson said that states have different rules and that some actions involve administrative problems or violations, like drunken driving, that are not directly related to a doctor's medical ability.

CNN's Ted Rowlands, David Williams and Michael Squadron contributed to this report.

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