Are Criminal Background Checks for Doctors Justified?


The American Journal of Bioethics

Publish date

April 3, 2012

Topic(s): Health Care

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

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