January 7, 2021

QUESTION:        We recently had an applicant disclose that she was convicted for embezzling funds from an employer twelve years ago and served five months in a minimum security prison as part of her penalty.  Because the conviction occurred prior to the individual beginning medical residency training, it did not render her ineligible for consideration under our threshold eligibility criteria, which state (as relevant):

Since the start of medical or professional training, the individual must have not been convicted of, or entered a plea of guilty or no contest to, any felony or to any misdemeanor related to controlled substances, illegal drugs, violent acts, sexual misconduct, moral turpitude, domestic, child or elder abuse, or Medicare, Medicaid, or other federal or state governmental or private third-party payer fraud or program abuse, nor have been required to pay a civil money penalty for any such fraud or program abuse;

We processed the application, after getting substantial information from the applicant about the conviction and the steps she had taken to reform her conduct to ensure no reoccurrence.  But, this situation got us wondering whether we should make our threshold criteria more stringent.  Wouldn’t it be better to exclude, as a matter of course, all individuals with a felony background and then individually, on a case-by-case basis determine whether to make an exception and let them apply?  Though I think we ultimately reached a good outcome with this applicant, I’d be lying if I said that the prospect of denying the application and having to hold a hearing wasn’t on our minds.

 

ANSWER:          Processing applications from those with interesting backgrounds is the most difficult task that credentialers face.  When an applicant has something very concerning in their background, it often falls within the “eligibility criteria” set forth in the organization’s Medical Staff Bylaws – and renders the individual completely ineligible to have the application subjectively considered.  That’s easy!  When the applicant, like 99% (or more) of the applicants has nothing but good things in their background, subjective consideration requires very little scrutiny.  That’s easy!  But, the gray areas in between:  That’s hard.  And that’s where you found yourself with your applicant – a felon with a notable conviction and some prison time, but whose crime occurred a number of years ago, prior to medical training.

If the culture of your organization is such that, in virtually all cases (90% +), you would not want to even consider granting Medical Staff membership (or privileges) to an individual who has a certain characteristic – and that characteristic is reasonably related to the practice of medicine or the fulfillment of the responsibilities of Medical Staff membership – you should consider adding the characteristic to your threshold criteria.  With respect to criminal background, some organizations feel differently than others with respect to how the threshold criteria should be defined.  Some wish to include all felonies, no matter when they occurred and no matter whether they are certain types of crimes.  The thought in such organizations is that a felony is serious enough to call into question the individual’s judgment and reputation, no matter the other circumstances.  Other organizations, like yours, define the threshold criteria more narrowly, perhaps limiting those relevant to crimes to felonies that occurred within the past 5 or 10 years, or to felonies that relate to the practice of medicine (e.g. those related to violence, treatment of vulnerable people, fraud, insurance, etc.).  There are many, many variations out there.  If your organization feels that the existing language of the Medical Staff Bylaws (or Credentials Policy) is too narrow – and lets through too many applicants who should not be receiving consideration – then it’s time to open a dialogue on the matter and consider revisions.  Threshold criteria are not static!  They should be modified as necessary to achieve the goals of the organization.  Further, one of the reasons for a separate Credentials Policy, if you use it, is to allow the detailed credentialing criteria to be more easily modified to reflect the organization’s changing culture and goals.

Note, however, that threshold criteria are not meant to be used to prevent credentialers from using their judgment and expertise to carefully weigh the credentials of applicants who come with some background.  If the culture of your organization is that you would sometimes consider granting Medical Staff membership and/or privileges to an individual who has a certain characteristic, such as a felony conviction, but it depends on the type of conviction, how long ago the conviction occurred, the mitigating steps taken by the applicant to address the matter, the applicant’s assumption of responsibility, finite steps taken by the applicant to prevent recurrence, etc., then your threshold criteria may be just right.  In other words – you need not use the threshold criteria to screen out, as “ineligible,” those individuals who you would sometimes (often) consider for appointment or privileges.  Rather, you can use the standard credentialing process to weigh such individuals’ qualifications and make a subjective decision.  The credentialing process, which usually includes several layers of consideration is uniquely designed to promote careful consideration of each application – particularly in cases where something notable is found in the applicant’s background.

Of course, the standard credentialing process does come with the prospect of a “denial,” with the attendant costs of hearing and appeal rights.  So, why not adopt threshold criteria that are more stringent than you would sometimes like to enforce and then grant case-by-case exceptions?  The reason is that each failure to enforce the threshold eligibility criteria undermines the eligibility process generally.  The whole point of having objective eligibility criteria is to define objective factors that are less susceptible to biased implementation (do to them being objective and, in turn, easily discernible through reference to external sources).  Because bias is so limited in such situations, and subjective consideration is not required, eligibility determinations do not constitute judgments about an individual’s competence or conduct and, therefore, do not constitute “adverse professional review actions.”  It is adverse professional review actions that give rise to due process rights.

While we do generally recommend including in the Bylaws/Credentials Policy a process for granting waivers to those who fail to satisfy threshold criteria, we also recommend that the process be utilized only when exceptional circumstances exist – circumstances that are so significant they rule out the concern raised by the threshold criterion at issue (for example, a foreign-trained physician convicted of a crime equivalent to a felony in his home country, during a time of political upheaval and related to political activism would be a good choice for waiver, because the type of criminal conviction at issue does not raise concerns about reputation or judgment, in the way that most other criminal convictions would).

Importantly, however, if the waiver process is intended to be used – or is actually used – to grant waivers more routinely (for example, you find that 27% of reappointment applicants are being granted waivers of board recertification/MOC requirements after requesting waivers on the basis that they didn’t have time to get around to MOC), then the criterion is probably overly broad and should be modified until the organization is comfortable applying the criterion almost uniformly.  That eliminates as much subjectivity as possible/practicable, lending credence to the eligibility process generally.

October 15, 2020

QUESTION:        In the Tayefeh v. Kern Medical Center case summarized in this week’s Health Law Express, there was confusion about whether the physician was entitled to a Medical Staff hearing because of his failure to disclose certain unfavorable information and the resulting “termination” of his clinical privileges.  Is there any way that we can make it clear in our Medical Staff Bylaws or Credentials Policy that such an event does not give rise to a hearing?

 

ANSWER:          Yes.  While it is always important to consult requirements under state law, which may address situations when a hearing is required (we saw the California Business and Professions Code come into play in the Tayefeh case), your Medical Staff Bylaws or Credentials Policy (“Bylaws”) should clearly define the consequences for certain events and the circumstances that give rise to a hearing.  In Tayefeh, the physician failed to disclose an “accusation” filed against him by the Medical Board of California.  The Bylaws should spell out the results of failing to disclose information requested on the application and instruct that any misstatement in, or omission from, the application is grounds to stop processing the application. A decision not to process an application for these reasons does not entitle the applicant to a hearing or appeal.

With that in mind, it also makes sense to review your application forms to confirm that the application questions are seeking information that you need to make an informed decision about someone’s qualifications.  For example, the hospital’s application in the Tayefeh case not only sought information on past actions by licensing boards, it also asked for information on pending actions.  Confirm that the questions on the application form are consistent with provisions in the Bylaws with respect to the threshold eligibility criteria that someone must satisfy for eligibility for appointment.  If one of your threshold eligibility criterion requires an applicant to “have a current, unrestricted license to practice that has never been subject to any restrictions, conditions, or probationary terms and have never had a license to practice in any jurisdiction denied, revoked, restricted or suspended by a state licensing agency,” then there should be a corresponding question on the application seeking this information.

Finally, your Bylaws should place an obligation on members to notify the Medical Staff Office of any change in information provided as a part of the application and state that a failure to do so may result in administrative relinquishment of appointment and clinical privileges.  This permits the Medical Staff and Hospital to evaluate any changes in an individual’s qualifications, weigh those changes against eligibility criteria, and assess the appropriateness of any applicable consequences under the Bylaws.  Unless state law requires it, an administrative relinquishment of appointment and clinical privileges because of failure to continuously satisfy threshold eligibility criteria does not give rise to a Medical Staff hearing.

March 26, 2020

QUESTION:        We are a six-hospital system and are doing our best to address and anticipate the health care needs of patients with COVID-19.  Two of our hospitals are Critical Access Hospitals, which is why our medical staffs are not unified.  Nonetheless, we have a system CVO and our bylaws, credentials policy and privileging criteria are consistent.  If we want to be flexible about deploying needed practitioners to our various hospitals by using temporary privileges for those practitioners who do not hold privileges at each hospital, must we get new peer references from their primary system hospital? What are our other options for granting privileges for these practitioners at hospitals in our system where they are needed?

 

ANSWER:        Technically, each hospital with a separate CCN and license is supposed to get a peer reference to confirm current competence, under both Joint Commission and DNV GL NIAHO standards, without reference to whether a hospital is part of a system.  However, under these difficult circumstances, of course it makes sense to take advantage of the system’s knowledge of privileging at other system hospitals to speed up the availability of practitioners to go where they are needed most.  Here are some options:

  • For those who are somewhat risk averse and have the time and resources, the system CVO (or centralized Medical Staff Office) could pre-populate a short “application” form so there would be little the “applicant” would need to do other than sign electronically. That form could refer to a standard department chief/chair peer reference communication to be used within the system, which confirms current competence based on OPPE (or FPPE if applicable for recently appointed practitioners) or the last reappointment recommendation/report.  However, those under a performance improvement plan or investigation would not be eligible except on a case-by-case basis.
  • Pursuant to a system information sharing policy, Board resolution, or agreement, the standard department chief/chair peer references could be accessed electronically throughout the system or the actual recent OPPE or reappointment reports could simply be made available directly without the need for the separate peer reference form.
  • A system could simply let the practitioners go where they are needed, via a Board and MEC resolution, and justify it later if surveyors question it. Will surveyors really cite hospitals for having moved quickly to get known practitioners to respond to the community?  We doubt it.
  • A few systems have created a category on each medical staff in the bylaws for all physicians who are appointed to other hospitals’ staffs. The CVO has all the information.  The physicians in that category are permitted to exercise privileges at all system hospitals where the services they provide are offered, even though they designate a primary hospital.  (One reason that systems do this is to create a panel of peer reviewers to review cases at other system hospitals when there is a potential conflict, or to use those physicians as locum tenens in system hospitals to avoid contracting with locum tenens firms and thereby getting unknown physicians.)
  • Another option is for each hospital to grant disaster privileges quickly and as needed, in reliance on the CVO’s files containing licensure, and verify identity when they report for duty.

Join Charlie Chulack and Barbara Blackmond for the next installment in our Grand Rounds audio conference series on April 7 on Making the Most of your Relationship with Credentials Verification Organizations (CVOs).

March 12, 2020

QUESTION:        We had an applicant who “forgot” to disclose two hospitals where she practiced in the past when she completed her application form.  We found out about one of them through a National Practitioner Data Bank query and the other when we directed her to correct her application form.  She was very apologetic and said it was an accident because her office manager completed the form.  What do we do with this now that we feel like she wasn’t honest? It seems unlikely that she “forgot” an affiliation where they restricted her privileges.

ANSWER:          Misstatements and omissions on application forms can certainly be very serious and the concerns that your medical staff leaders have are justified. The act of completing a medical staff application form is a practitioner’s very first administrative contact with the hospital.  As an administrative function, we recommend having an administrative response when this type of discrepancy is discovered.  That response should not be an invitation to “correct” the application form, because through the use of such language, it implies to the practitioner that there are no concerns raised by their initial completion of the form or that those concerns are fully resolved by their “correcting” the erroneous information.

Rather, we recommend having medical staff bylaws/credentials policy language that clearly states that the hospital will stop processing an application if a misstatement or omission is discovered – and if it is not discovered until after appointment has been granted, that appointment will be automatically relinquished.  The applicant should be notified of the misstatement or omission and given an opportunity to respond, and then there should be an administrative-level review of that response to determine whether or not to move forward.  The same language should be on the application form release that the individual signs upon completing the application form.  Addressing this issue on an administrative level means avoiding words like “rejection” or “termination” of the application or “denying” the application – which is an action that is only ever taken following a comprehensive review of the application and all supporting materials in its entirety.

November 14, 2019

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 was 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).

October 24, 2019

QUESTION:        We are in the process of negotiating with insurers to conduct “delegated credentialing.”  We would like to use our Medical Staff Credentials Policy to perform delegated credentialing, but during a pre-delegation audit, the insurer informed us that our Policy does not comply with accreditation standards.  Why is that and what do we need to do?

ANSWER:          By way of background, we are seeing significant interest from hospitals in pursuing delegated credentialing with insurers.  Delegated credentialing means that the hospital performs the credentialing that insurers are required to do before accepting individual providers for participation with the insurers’ plans.  Since the hospital is conducting the credentialing for the insurer, the regulatory requirements and accreditation standards that control are those to which the insurer is subject.  The majority of these requirements and standards come from the Medicare Managed Care Manual, state Medicaid rules (if the insurer has Medicaid managed care plans), and insurer accreditation entities such as NCQA and URAC.

For the most part, these credentialing requirements and standards overlap with those for hospitals.  However, there are a few differences that need to be addressed if you plan to use your Medical Staff documents for delegated credentialing.  For example, the URAC accreditation requirements instruct that the Credentials Committee is tasked with making a “final determination” on applications.  This can be a sticking point for insurers accredited by URAC and which are delegating credentialing to a hospital using its Medical Staff policies for delegated credentialing.  The reason for this is because the Medicare Conditions of Participation and hospital accreditation entities, such as the Joint Commission, require the hospital’s board to make final decisions on applications for appointment and clinical privileges.

Nonetheless, this is not a difficult fix and you have a couple of options.  The first is to adopt a Credentials Procedures Manual that works in conjunction with your Medical Staff Credentials Policy.  You want to be sure that you note in this Manual that the procedures specified are designed to comply with, and for use in, the delegated credentialing process.  A second option is to add an appendix to your Medical Staff Credentials Policy, which includes all the provisions needed to comply with the regulatory requirements and accreditation standards for insurers.  For example, with respect to the “final determination” issue noted above, the appendix could instruct as follows: “For purposes of delegated credentialing and reporting practitioner effective dates to third-party payors, the date that the Credentials Committee, or chairperson of the Credentials Committee (for those applications that meet the criteria outlined in the Credentials Policy for “clean applications”), approves the practitioner’s credentialing will be used as the practitioner’s effective date.”

August 29, 2019

QUESTION:        Our Credentials Policy says that applicants for Medical Staff appointment and clinical privileges will be interviewed by the department chair, the Credentials Committee, the Medical Executive Committee, the Chief of Staff, the Chief Medical Officer or the Chief Executive Officer.  Is there really any benefit to performing an interview as a part of the credentialing process or should we just eliminate this language from our Policy?

 

ANSWER:            There certainly is some debate about the effectiveness of interviews in predicting future job performance.  However, much of the research indicates that unstructured job interviews are ineffective.  On the other hand, structured interviews are one of the most effective selection techniques.

In structured interviews, applicants are asked to respond to the same set of questions and their answers are rated on a standard scale.  Sounds complicated, right?  Not necessarily.  We understand that the development of a complex, standard scale for rating would involve the participation of experts; however, a common set of straightforward questions that are structured to elicit information about past behavior (as opposed to questions designed to elicit information about how an applicant would respond in a hypothetical situation) and that are relevant to Medical Staff appointment, measured against a simple rating scale, can be useful.  This task shouldn’t be outside of the Credentials Committee’s wheelhouse.

There is always the risk of variability among interviewers, but this could be minimized by having at least two individuals conducting the interview, using the same scale but rating separately, and then comparing notes after the interview to reduce variability in rating.

Like we mentioned earlier, questions about past behavior are key because there is less opportunity for an applicant to provide a response that is not capable of being verified.  Interview questions can also elicit information about whether the applicant’s views and practice style are consistent with the medical staff and hospital’s culture.

For example:

Q:        What attracts you to this hospital/why are you interested in working here?

Q:        Tell us about a time in which a case of yours was reviewed through the peer review process and how you participated/responded.

Q:        Describe a situation in which you were asked to do something beyond your established responsibilities (e.g., service on medical staff committee, fill in a call coverage gap) and tell us how you responded.

Q:        Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with another physician and how you dealt with that conflict.

Q:        What role do you see the nursing staff playing in patient care in the hospital?

If interviewing every applicant simply isn’t an option because of time constraints, interviews should, at the very least, be conducted when there are questions or concerns about the applicant’s qualifications, experience, education, training, or other aspects of his or her practice that have been raised at any time during the review of the application.  Thus, rather than having a strict requirement that all applicants will be interviewed, you can adjust your Policy language to instruct that applicants may be interviewed.

May 16, 2019

QUESTION:        A registrant at our recent Complete Course for Medical Staff Leaders in New Orleans in April asked:  Can we call a past Department Chief, as you did in the case study, without the applicant’s specific consent?

ANSWER:          Yes, you can and should! Your Bylaws or Credentials Policy, and application forms, should contain an authorization, as a condition to consideration of the application, to obtain full information about an applicant’s qualifications, including education, training, practice experience, current competence, and professionalism from all educational institutions and organizations where the candidate has practiced.  You should contact department chiefs at hospitals where an applicant has most recently practiced.  The applicant may not have listed recent past department chief(s) as references, but you are not limited to contacting those listed as references by the applicant.  Those providing information should be released by the applicant to the fullest extent permitted by law.

January 10, 2019

QUESTION:        A brand new member of our Credentials Committee, who is opposed to a request from a physician in a different specialty to apply for a privilege to perform a procedure that member performs himself, has been lobbying other committee members to deny the request and has asked that the request first be referred to his department for a vote.  A written application has not been submitted. The potential applicant did not have residency training in this procedure but, rather, took a short course conducted by an equipment vendor.  The physician requesting the privilege has threatened a lawsuit on antitrust grounds, because he has learned about the lobbying.  How can we manage this situation?

ANSWER:            If your Bylaws or Credentials Policy does not have a section on how to manage requests for privileges that cross specialty lines, consider deferring consideration until such language is adopted and implemented.  It is a best practice to have the Credentials Committee develop eligibility criteria before processing requests (both for new privileges and for practitioners seeking privileges in different specialties).  If current criteria refer to residency training in one specialty, the committee can review possible alternate pathways.  Any physician, including the potential applicant, can submit proposed criteria for education, training and experience.  The committee should also consider how FPPE would work, indications for the procedure, and how call coverage and complications would be handled. How much training is sufficient to demonstrate competence?   A survey of other hospitals would be a helpful step to demonstrate objectivity. Also, a Credentials Committee member who is in an affected specialty has a conflict of interest and should be recused from the process (but he can submit proposed criteria).  It is best if recusal is discussed with the affected member in advance of the meeting. The minutes should reflect that he left the room before final deliberation and vote on the criteria. A conflict of interest should not be viewed as a judgment on the individual’s character but, rather, as a step to protect the integrity of the process.  And, departments should not vote on criteria or specific requests; that is too easily challenged as a conspiracy in restraint of trade. The applicant’s request should not be processed until either new eligibility criteria are adopted by the Credentials Committee, MEC (and Board), or the current criteria are confirmed. A determination of ineligibility is not a “denial.”  (If the Credentials Committee and MEC recommend, and the Board determines to adopt, eligibility criteria with an alternate pathway that would enable this request to be processed, the interested committee member should also recuse himself from the consideration of the application.)

For more information, be sure to join Ian Donaldson and Barbara Blackmond for The Complete Course for Medical Staff Leaders!  You may want to send the new Credentials Committee member to the Complete Course if he has little leadership experience or to our Credentialing for Excellence program if he is otherwise experienced but lacking depth in credentialing!

October 18, 2018

QUESTION:        Our hospital has adopted a mandatory flu vaccine policy for all employees and our MEC thinks it makes sense to also require vaccines for all private practice providers who are credentialed at the hospital.  What is the best way to do this?

ANSWER:            This question seems to be coming up often — another sad reminder that the summer season has transitioned to the flu season!  Many medical staff leaders see the value in addressing this issue consistently across all providers, regardless of whether they are employed or not.

The simplest solution would be to modify your eligibility criteria in your Medical Staff Bylaws or Credentials Policy so that every applicant and medical staff member would be required to provide evidence of an annual influenza vaccination.  Of course, any exemptions in your hospital’s policy for employees could also be recognized (i.e., allowing providers to wear a mask whenever they are in the hospital if, for example, a medical condition would prohibit them from obtaining a vaccination).

Have other medical staff questions?  Then join Barbara Blackmond and Ian Donaldson for The Complete Course for Medical Staff Leaders, where we will cover practical, real-world approaches to managing all types of Medical Staff leadership dilemmas, including how to modernize the eligibility criteria in your Medical Staff Bylaws.