Sacramento Battle Over Telling Patients About Doctors’ Probation

March 12, 2017

San Francisco Chronicle
By Melody Gutierrez

SACRAMENTO — Dr. Wanda Heffernon, a former UCSF anesthesiologist, made headlines in 2001 when she pleaded guilty to stealing credit cards from her fellow physicians and forging prescriptions to feed her drug addiction.

While facing those charges, she worked as a physical therapist at a nursing home in San Mateo County, where she was accused — and later convicted — of elder abuse after prying a diamond wedding ring off a 94-year-old patient, bruising the woman’s finger in the process. The judge who sentenced Heffernon to two years in prison noted the extreme vulnerability of the victim and remarked that there was “a dark side to Ms. Heffernon that is difficult to fathom.”

Now, many years later, Heffernon is licensed to practice medicine in California.

After surrendering her license in 2001, Heffernon successfully petitioned the Medical Board of California in 2014 to get it back on the condition she remain on probation for five years. It’s unclear whether Heffernon, who lives in Oakland, is currently practicing medicine. She hastily declined to comment when reached by phone.

Heffernon is one of 500 doctors in the state — including 85 in the Bay Area — on probation by the state medical board. But they’re not required by law to disclose their probationary status to their patients, and consumer advocates say they should be.

“Doctors should have to tell you they are on probation before they treat you,” said Eric Andrist, who supports patient notification laws and is a vocal critic of the medical board. “The probation itself is ridiculous. When you look at many of these cases, the licenses should be revoked, not suspended.”