Dr. General Theophilius Little was sentenced to prison after beating his wife to death.
Dr. Amy Pham was charged after writing prescriptions for herself.
Dr. Mohammed Ibrahim Alhatou was arrested when he signed more than 1,000 blank prescriptions and left the country.
Each of these doctors is accused or convicted of committing crimes, but the state board charged with regulating their licenses makes it difficult for the public to know about any of this wrongdoing. State licensing boards are bound by law to regulate health care professionals, but the opaque system can keep patients in the dark about their providers' misdeeds.
A review of arrest records from the state's Bureau of Drug Control and records obtained through the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation shows not every medical professional who is arrested is publicly disciplined by the state boards.
Lesia Kudelka, a spokeswoman for the licensing agency, said not every arrest results in a conviction, and the licensing boards try to rehabilitate practitioners accused of drug crimes.
Still, the cases of three doctors recently disciplined by the medical board show professionals who have been charged with crimes sometimes go unnoticed by the boards, which often give little information about what happened.
Alhatou, Little and Pham were each temporarily suspended, an action with vague language that leaves the door open for reinstatement. Pham relinquished her license earlier this year and left the state.
Two state agencies were involved in the Alhatou and Pham cases from the beginning, said Adrianna Bradley, a spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The health department often works with other agencies on these cases, and DHEC makes sure the licensing agency is aware of the alleged crimes. But records show even following an arrest that doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists and other professionals often saw no effect on their licenses.
About 170 health care practitioners were arrested in 2016 and 2017, according to records from the Bureau of Drug Control. A review of those cases found:
- The majority were charged with "theft" or "obtaining" controlled substances.
- In all, at least 40 have active licenses. That number is likely higher because an additional 47 of the professionals had their records expunged, meaning their names and alleged crimes are not public record.
- In 47 of the cases, the state boards did discipline practitioners. More than half the time, they didn't give a public reason.
The licensing agency can, and often does, discipline practitioners without publicly describing the nature of the person's crime.
Kudelka pointed out that charges are not the same as convictions. If the charge is a misdemeanor, it might not meet the threshold for an emergency order, she said.
The board can also send people to substance abuse or mental illness treatment. The law dictates those orders remain confidential.
In Little's case, the state's Board of Medical Examiners did nothing with his license until he was sentenced to 30 years in prison for murder earlier this year. He was originally charged in 2015. Kudelka said the board was not aware of his case until his conviction.
Pham was ruled not safe to practice medicine in Texas in late 2016. She was terminated by that state's medical board in June 2017. A month later, she applied for the right to prescribe narcotics in South Carolina, according to an incident report from DHEC's Bureau of Drug Control.
She lied on state and federal forms, saying she had never been disciplined by another state's board. Pham's former employer, Family Health Centers Inc., did not respond to a request for comment. Pham left her practice in Holly Hill to move back to Texas, telling a DHEC investigator "she had resigned because she felt uncomfortable writing pain medication prescriptions."
Search her name on LLR's website, and you'll find two public orders with no mention of her alleged crimes.
Alhatou, a neurologist, left his pain clinic in Orangeburg for months at a time to care for his mother abroad. When the Bureau of Drug Control inspected his practice, they confiscated 1,025 blank prescriptions. Alhatou had been seeing his patients via Skype, and having office staff fill out prescriptions, including prescriptions for narcotics. He maintained to the investigator that he did not know this was illegal, according to another incident report.
Alhatou's lawyer did not respond to request for comment. According to the Times & Democrat, felony charges against him were dropped and he ultimately paid a $500 fine. The newspaper also reported he will try to get his medical license back.