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Curious doctor examines system

You would think Valrico physician Fred Bearison had enough on his plate with a family practice, a wife and three kids. For the past two months, however, Bearison has taken on another job for the state of Florida.

Bearison is one of 12 doctors on the Florida Board of Medicine. Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him to the post in mid December, and since then he has been helping the board license physicians, review complaints against doctors and render opinions on legislative bills. (Another Brandon physician, Dr. Raghavendra Vijayanagar, also serves on the board.)

Over pizza at the Mellow Mushroom on Causeway Boulevard, we talked about the appointment, the challenges of the medical industry and how he couldn't do all of this without the support of his family.

Pull up a chair and join us.

You got a call from the governor's appointment office saying you made the board. What was the emotion?

I asked her to repeat herself to make sure. People that know me know that I'm a big one for certain phrases. Some of them I'm not going to share with you, but one of them that I will is, the third time is the charm. This is actually the third year in a row that I had applied. From what I've been told, to quote a good friend of mine, the Board of Medicine is the crown jewel of all the boards in the state.

What drove you to want to be on the board?

I wanted to find out how the process works. Sometimes physicians are denied licenses. Why does that happen? I wanted to go ahead and see if a physician should have an adverse outcome with a patient, or a patient is not happy, what happens with that. How does a complaint happen? I felt based on my experience of 20 years that I could be a pretty fair, impartial judge, so to speak, to make a valid determination. Yes, this doctor did make a mistake or no he didn't. As doctors, we're all human, we all make mistakes, but the way the laws are, if a physician makes a mistake there are certain consequences you'll have to pay. On the other hand, I wanted to make sure that no doctor gets railroaded for something. Based on my limited experience on the board, that has not happened.

Unfortunately, doctors make mistakes, but we expect you to be perfect all the time, every time. Is that unreasonable?

It's unfortunate because most people, when they make a mistake, it doesn't affect somebody's life.

That's why I'm not a doctor.

Right. Most of the mistakes, in general, are not life-threatening. You don't do any permanent damage. But sometimes that does happen. We are held to a very high standard and that's just part of our job. In general, I don't think the majority of patients expect too much of doctors. I think there are some patients that are unreasonable, but I think the vast majority of my patients are wonderful people and I don't think they expect too much of me at all.

With malpractice, insurance and other challenges, how tough is it being a doctor today?

There's a lot of issues. As far as being a doctor and taking care of patients, I love it. I enjoy it immensely. It's something I've always wanted to do, and I feel very fortunate to be able to do it. Things, though, have changed in respect to what I call extraneous and maybe even extraterrestrial forces. There's insurance companies, there's government, there are other things that come along that sometimes make it more difficult.

Give me an example.

Probably the best example is when we want to order tests. Certain tests such as PT scan or MRI, if someone is on a managed care insurance plan, which most people are, they have to go through some type of review board. That review board can decide, Oh we're not going to approve that test. Then we have to spend our time speaking with the review board people, sometimes sending them copies of charts. It's not unusual for them to ask for medical justification with studies and articles and books.

It would be nice if they just trusted you.

That's probably the toughest thing about being a doctor, just dealing with other things to try and help the patient.

Does politics play a role in the appointment?

It reminds me of when I was in high school in New Jersey. In 10th grade, we did government and they taught us about political patronage. It is a gubernatorial appointment, so you have to be qualified. The governor is not going to appoint someone and stake his reputation on somebody he doesn't think is going to do a good job. On the other hand, life is life and I think for me to say, no there aren't any politics involved in anything that's done in the real world, is not realistic.

You joined the board in December and you've already been to a number of meetings, reviewed thousands of documents and voted on cases. You also have a practice, a wife and three kids. Weren't you busy enough?

I've learned to become much more efficient in the things that I do. I have given up some of my spare time as far as watching my favorite, Hannity & Colmes, and I have cut my sleeping time by an hour to 45 minutes a night. But I know I couldn't have done all of this without the help of my family. They realize how important this was for me, especially my wife. She's been the most supportive of all.

DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest

Bearison couldn't say enough about his wife, Kim, and children: 14-year-old twins Cara and Craig and 12-year-old Amy. He also credited the partners in his group for helping him, as well as Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon. In fact, Bearison called Lee a role model for public service. In his spare time, not that he has a lot, Fred likes to join Kim for a jog. They've been running for more than 10 years. He also likes reruns of Law & Order.

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section of the St. Petersburg Times. Lunch With Ernest is edited for brevity and clarity. To suggest lunch partners, call Ernest at 226-3406 or e-mail hooper@sptimes.com.

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