Get Published | Subscribe | About | Write for Our Blog    

Posted on April 3, 2012 at 5:19 PM

It is hard to determine which is more concerning: the fact that state medical boards are now doing background checks on their physicians or that prior experience suggests that they have to in order to protect public safety.

According to American Medical News, 2/3rds of state medical boards are now conducting criminal background checks on their members. The goal? Physicians with a criminal record can “be denied a license, have restrictions placed on their practice or face no repercussions, depending on the will of the board in a particular state.”

Furthermore, AAMC has suggested since 2006 that all medical school applicants have criminal background checks and now 102 or 137 run those checks as part of the admissions process.

Why do states conduct these searches? According to AMN, these searches were the “result of pressure from state legislatures, hospitals and the public to ensure that those entrusted with caring for patients are morally and mentally fit to practice medicine.”

Interesting. Yet we don’t ask medical students or applicants for licensure to disclose their mental health history, a list of their prescription medications, or a recommendation letter from their priest, rabbi, or parent to attest to their ethics. Is criminal background checking likely to achieve its stated aim? Maybe, but it is likely to catch only the most dangerous (or at least the least crafty) of the criminals among the medical profession, i.e. those who were caught and charged with crimes. And this procedure does nothing to ensure that those caring for patients are both “morally and mentally fit” to practice medicine.

What would be required to ensure this would likely be so invasive into the private lives of physicians that it could not be justifiable at all. Just because physicians (in practice or in training) attend to the public health and interest does not mean the state has an unlimited right to snoop in their personal lives, personal history, and work outside the clinic. Physicians don’t give up their civil liberties when they put on the white coat.

Yet, states have a compelling interest to protect public health. Still, criminal background checks are a pretty blunt instrument with which to do so. Are there any other ideas out there that could achieve their stated goals without violating one’s right to privacy, for example?

If so, I’d love to hear them.

Summer Johnson McGee, PhD

4 responses to “Are Criminal Background Checks for Doctors Justified?”

  1. guest says:

    Colorado does ask on its application for licensure if the applicant has undergone psychiatric treatment. 

  2. n. k. says:

    I guess I’d be interested to know what other professions require background checks for licensing, in order to put this in some perspective.  I had to undergo criminal background checking for my job as a contractor with a gov’t IRB office.  Do social workers, nurses, therapists, pharmacists, etc, do this too?  What about teachers and lawyers?  I agree that it’s an extreme measure for many professions.  What types of information is actually exclusionary?  (Sorry, I have more questions than answers.) 

  3. Janeane Davis says:

    I know that in order to get admitted to the bar as an attorney I had to have a criminal background check. In order to work with children as a cognitive trainer I needed a criminal background check. my husband works as an accountant and in banking and he must undergo a criminal background check. In many professions and jobs, criminal background checks are becoming exceedingly common. It makes sense that a criminal background check should be done on physicians as well.

  4. someone in this situation says:

    There may be good reasons for mandating criminal background checks for those in certain professions. However, one should keep in mind that unlike European countries, the US has no standard expungement or spent conviction scheme. With the increasing role of information technology and the centralization of data there is the potential that convictions as a minor or young adult can make it impossible for a person to have a successful career in a whole host of professions. The most sensitive professions also often happen to be the highest paying and so over a lifetime this can end up being extremely economically costly. And it seems that we do not usually think about or “price in” these hidden costs when a person is charged for many types of crimes. If the actual price could be calculated at sentencing, for example that you are going to charge a person $1 million in lost lifetime wages, we might take greater notice. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *