COLUMBIA - Medical board complaints against doctors would become public records under a bill that won key approval in the South Carolina Senate on Thursday.
The legislation requires the state Medical Board to release formal complaints and physician responses to the public within 10 days.
"That's a good step for openness and accountability in South Carolina," said Bill Rogers, the executive director of the South Carolina Press Association. The bill allows the "public to protect themselves from unprofessional doctors."
"Five percent of the doctors do 95 percent of the bad work, and I think that the public needs to know who they are," said Senate Minority Leader John Land, D-Manning.
Interest in disclosure issues has grown during the past year as questions were raised about the state Medical Board's handling of complaints involving Dr. James M. Shortt, of West Columbia, and Hilton Head Island's Dr. James D. Johnston.
"Dr. Shortt's travails obviously elevated the discussions somewhat," said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.
The Supreme Court recently heard a case challenging an administrative law judge's closing of disciplinary proceedings against Dr. Johnston.
The House bill started out adding a dozen people with no ties to medical professions to the Medical Disciplinary Commission of the State Board of Medical Examiners. The commission's other 36 members are doctors.
"I think it gives a People's Court-type perspective to it," said Senate Medical Affair Committee Chairman Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney.
Mr. Peeler said the amendment is welcome.
"The more sunshine, the better," he said.
The bill needs routine third-reading approval before going back to the House, where members can agree to the Senate's changes or a conference committee will be appointed to work out differences in the two versions of the bill.
All sorts of professions get state recognition in law and the power to bar people that don't meet state-sanctioned standards, said Mr. Hutto and Senate Judiciary Chairman Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston. Greater disclosure is part of the responsibility that goes with the state regulation of professions, they said.
"You know, you can't have it both ways," Mr. McConnell said. "You can't on one side use the state licensing procedures and get the benefits of that and not expect what comes with it - and that is a level of public accountability."
Doctors should be treated the same way as lawyers and other professionals, Mr. Hutto said.
"Whatever the grievance process is for the individual profession, we expect that the ... point at which the public has a right to know will remain uniform throughout all professions," Mr. Hutto said.
More disciplinary disclosure could be on the way.
For instance, Mr. McConnell takes a dim view of administrative law judges closing hearings and records tied to medical disciplinary cases.
"I hope that same policy spills over into the veterinarian bill," he said.