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What You Don't Know About Your Doctor

By Catherine M. Welch


Wilmington, NC – The case of former Wilmington surgeon Dr. Steven Olchowski, who for years performed the wrong surgery on dozens of patients, helped bring to light the need for changes at the North Carolina Medical Board. One change requires the Medical Board to publish more information about disciplinary action taken against physicians. But some think the law doesn't go far enough.

From 2000 to 2002, former Wilmington bariatric surgeon Steven Olchowski was performing gastric bypass surgery on dozens of patients at Sina Surgical Associates in Wilmington. Attorney Melissa Pollock says during that time Olchowski's North Carolina Medical Board record was clean.

There wouldn't have been any information that would have caused you to have concern about him as a surgeon.

But Pollock says there were major problems. Olchowski promised his patients one form of gastric bypass surgery but instead performed a short-cut operation. And when those patients returned to Olchowski with complications

they were being told I haven't had any of this before that in reality that was more the norm with his patients, and these people were lead to believe they were doing something wrong, in their heads, it had nothing to do with his surgery

It took three years and some three-dozen lawsuits by Pollock's clients for the North Carolina Medical Board to revoke Olchowski's license in 2005. And while those lawsuits were coming in the medical board says it was limited in what it could make public. But a state law that went into effect last Fall requires the Medical Board to release more disciplinary information. State Representative Lucy Allen sponsored the legislation.

I have found that it's the one common ground you have between doctors, the medical board, patient advocates, insurers and the trial lawyers.

The legislature has decided that this is important information, and the board is doing everything it can in complying with the law and make as much information available to the public as possible.

That's Thomas Mansfield, the North Carolina Medical Board's legal director. There was already an electronic file of all state licensed physicians on the medical board's website. And because of the new law, that searchable database must now include: criminal convictions; hospital privileges and any malpractice payments made by insurance companies. But Mansfield says none of that new information will be on the website until 2010 - nearly three years after the law kicked in.

Those two big pieces, criminal convictions and malpractice payments are subject to rulemaking and that process takes a number of months and then we need to collect a year of data so every licensee has a chance to report and then we would go live with it.

One piece of information not covered in the law is whether a physician with an alcohol or substance abuse problem has been referred to what's call the North Carolina Physicians Health Program, a rehab program. California recently closed down its confidential rehab program but every other state has one.

North Carolina Medical Board's Thomas Mansfield. As that physician is compliant with requirements of the program and not jeopardizing patients' safety then they are able to participate anonymously in those programs

Olchowski was no stranger to the Physicians Health Program. Something Pollock says would not have been disclosed to her clients during the time they were seeking bypass surgery. She says the state needs to tighten up on physicians like Olchowski.

If you're diagnosed with a substance abuse problem and you seek help and you relapse, I think you have proven that you are not able to overcome your addiction and you need to choose another profession at that point.

But Mansfield says over the last five years the Medical Board has become less tolerant with relapsing physicians.

You can read on the website today public action cases where a physician got help, relapsed, and on the first relapse ended up getting a public record with the board.

Mansfield is proud of the Medical Board's website and says it will be a national leader once it starts posting everything required by law. But Pollock is not impressed. She advises anyone seeking more information about a physician to call the Medical Board and ask if there's more information than what's online, and to augment their research at the county courthouse.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@whqr.org.

Click here to view Dr. Steven Olchowski's public medical board file.