QUESTION: A registrant at our April Complete Course for Medical Staff Leaders in New Orleans submitted a question about waiver of threshold eligibility criteria for an applicant (a general practitioner who did an internship in 1985 but not a residency and so cannot even sit for the boards, who has been doing only outpatient primary care since). The criteria specify that grandfathering is possible for those who finished training before 1985; after 1985, a physician must achieve board certification within three years of appointment. All references are excellent. What can we do?
ANSWER: The question does not reveal why this physician wants to be on the medical staff or whether privileges would be sought in addition to appointment. In order to be eligible for any privileges, regardless of medical staff category, any applicant must be able to demonstrate current competence, according to CMS. Often, the eligibility criteria require that a candidate has practiced in at least two of the preceding four years in a hospital setting. Many organizations have a category for office-based practitioners, without any privileges. Some physicians wish to have a connection with the hospital for purposes of continuity of care when they refer patients for inpatient care to hospitalists. Possibly this physician wants appointment to be on health plan panels. (The latter is not a reason, in itself, to grant appointment.) When a physician is appointed to any category of the medical staff, even a category that does not carry with it any privileges, the public (and health plans) may rely on the hospital’s imprimatur.
The courts have upheld grandfathering in certain circumstances, but usually that is limited to individuals who have been on a medical staff for a number of years who have a track record that can be evaluated, when new policies require board certification for all applicants after a certain date. The hospital is not required to process an application for initial appointment from those who are not eligible. In the questioner’s situation, the only option other than declining to process the application based on ineligibility may be to consider appointing this individual to a membership-only category with no privileges. To consider even that type of appointment, many organizations would obtain evaluations from physicians to whom the outpatient practitioner has referred patients, to be sure that this outpatient practitioner is referring patients for the right reasons and doing the right pre-referral assessment.
As a final point on waivers generally, an occasional waiver in exceptional circumstances is usually preferable to modifying standards to fit a particular unusual situation and risking opening the door to others. Anytime a waiver is to be considered, it’s best to follow a process, specified in the Credentials Policy, and include a statement that the waiver is not intended to set a precedent for anyone else. And, any waiver should be based on exceptional qualifications of the applicant and the best interest of the hospital and community.