Question of the Week

QUESTION:        Is there any way to ensure that practitioners at our hospital keep patients within the community and don’t unnecessarily transfer them to other facilities for the practitioners’ convenience or profit, without going through all of the rigamarole of summarily suspending the physician and then revoking his appointment and privileges, as in the Patel case that is featured in the “NEW CASES” section of this week’s Health Law Express?

ANSWER:            Yes!  Hospital and medical staff leaders can use a number of strategies to help ensure that patients who present to the hospital for treatment do not end up being unnecessarily transferred away to other organizations and/or other communities.  Most organizations’ Medical Staff Bylaws or Credentials Policy includes, as a threshold eligibility criterion for Medical Staff appointment, that an individual live and/or maintain an office within a certain geographic distance of the hospital.  The intent of such requirements is to ensure that practitioners are routinely available to respond to their patients when needed and to participate in medical staff affairs.  Further, it helps to ensure that follow-up, outpatient services are available to patients within the community.

Note that some organizations choose to have a general geographic distance requirement for medical staff membership (e.g., “within 30 miles” or “within 30 minutes driving”) and to also have specialty-specific requirements for those specialties where patient needs may be more urgent or demanding.  For example, it is not uncommon for there to be more stringent geographic requirements (e.g., “within 10 miles” for trauma).  Further, some organizations impose a loose requirement for general medical staff appointment (e.g., “within 50 miles”) but require individuals within certain specialties to be closer to the hospital when serving on call for the emergency department.

In the end, each organization has to choose how to define its geographic requirements, based on the unique nature of the community and the services offered by the hospital’s practitioners.  There’s not a “right” or “wrong” answer with respect to that.  So long as the Bylaws and/or Credentials Policy are appropriately drafted, an individual who fails to meet the geographic distance requirement need not have an application for appointment denied but, rather, can simply be told that he or she has been deemed ineligible to have an application  processed and considered.  Further, so long as those documents call for automatic relinquishment of appointment and privileges when an individual fails to satisfy any eligibility criteria, an individual whose status changes during the course of an appointment term could simply be informed of his or her automatic relinquishment, rather than the Medical Executive Committee and Hospital having to go through the motions (and possible hearing, appeal, and litigation) associated with revocation of appointment and privileges.

Finally, with respect to employed physicians, many organizations require (either in the employment contract or in separate employment policies) that services to be provided within the employer’s facilities unless certain, enumerated circumstances apply (e.g., the patient’s best interest requires transfer to another facility with more specialized capabilities, the patient’s health insurer insists, the patient requests transfer).