First, do no harm [Editorial]

There's good reason nursery schools don't hire convicted child molesters as teachers and banks won't consider people found guilty of embezzlement for positions as tellers. The explanation is simple: Certain jobs — including nurses, therapists, social workers and so on — can only be safely filled by people of demonstrably good character because society has such a huge stake in ensuring they carry out their duties in a way that protects both their employers and the public they serve. That's why teachers and tellers are routinely required to undergo a criminal background check before they can start work.

Yet the same logic apparently doesn't apply to physicians in Maryland, where doctors who sexually harass or rape their patients can get or renew a medical license without anyone ever independently inquiring whether they have a criminal record that disqualifies them from practicing their profession. There's obviously something wrong with that, and the State Board of Physicians, which issues medical licenses in Maryland, needs to fix it before more patients fall victim to sexual predators masquerading as doctors.

That such things can still happen is evident from a Sun report last week that William Thomas Dando, an Allegany County doctor charged with sexually assaulting a patient inside a locked examination room in April, was issued a license to practice in Maryland in 1996 despite the fact that he had been convicted of raping a Florida woman less than a decade earlier. In that case, Dr. Dando pleaded guilty to following the woman home, breaking into her apartment and raping her at gunpoint after a drunken binge at a local strip club. For that offense he served four years of a 10-year prison sentence and had his Florida medical license revoked.

That's hardly the kind of history to inspire confidence among patients under Dr. Dando's care. Yet despite the cruelty of his past behavior, Maryland authorities apparently never knew anything about it when they issued him a medical license here because the physicians board does not require doctors to pass a criminal background check before being allowed to practice — and it's probable they still wouldn't know had he not been indicted for the recent attack in Allegany County. Instead, the board relies on applicants to voluntarily disclose any convictions that might disqualify them from holding a license.

Not surprisingly given Dr. Dando's shameful record in Florida, he failed to do so sufficiently. State officials say he disclosed at the time of his Maryland licensure that he had assaulted someone after drinking and that he had participated in a physician program for alcohol abuse. But he didn't mention rape at gunpoint. That this admission did not prompt the board to look further into the matter is stunning. The state has suspended his license as a result of the recent indictment, but that's too little, too late.

It's precisely because Maryland's honor system for screening license applicants is so easily circumvented that the state board needs to put teeth in the process by making criminal background checks mandatory. It makes no sense to expect that doctors who have something to hide will incriminate themselves (and in the process put themselves permanently out of work) of their own volition. As it is, doctors have nothing to gain and everything to lose by being truthful about a criminal past. No wonder state auditors found in a 2007 review of the board that "data suggests that a small number of physicians do not self-report criminal convictions as required on license application and renewal forms."

It's difficult understand the board's reluctance up to now to change that system, but one hopes the glaring failure represented by the Dando case will force authorities to finally face up to the fact that continuing along with business as usual is no longer a viable option. Maryland is one of only 13 states that don't require background checks for physicians and it's time doctors here were required to meet the same high moral and ethical standards as their colleagues in most of the rest of the country. State Health Secretary Dr. Joshua Sharfstein and the board's outgoing and incoming chairs, Dr. Andrea Mathias and Dr. Devinder Singh, have requested an investigation into the Dando case, and the board is considering changing its policy on background checks. That it should even be a question at this point is hard to fathom.

Dr. Dando's alleged conduct is an embarrassment to his profession, and the state's physicians should be among the loudest voices calling for an end to the flawed licensing process that makes such crimes possible. It's unconscionable that patients should continue to unwittingly place themselves in the hands of state-certified physicians whose primary interest in them isn't their physical or mental well-being but only in the opportunity they represent for sexual exploitation. Enough is enough.

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