February 13, 2020

QUESTION:            We are revising our Medical Staff Bylaws and a question has come up about whether we could add a “years of service” exemption that let’s physicians opt-out of their ED call obligations if they have been on the Medical Staff for more than 20 years. Is this okay under EMTALA?

ANSWER:            It is. CMS recognized the practice of giving age or year’s of service based exemptions in the 2003 Preamble to the updated EMTALA Regulations, stating:

“We understand that some hospitals exempt senior medical staff physicians from being on call. This exemption is typically written into the hospital’s medical staff bylaws or the hospital’s rules and regulations, and recognizes a physician’s active years of service (for example, 20 or more years) or age (for example, 60 years of age or older), or a combination of both. We wish to clarify that providing such exemptions to members of hospitals’ medical staff does not necessarily violate EMTALA. On the contrary, we believe that a hospital is responsible for maintaining an on-call list in a manner that best meets the needs of its patients as long as the exemption does not affect patient care adversely. Thus, CMS allows hospitals flexibility in the utilization of their emergency personnel.” (Emphasis added).

Obviously, the highlighted language indicates that while such exemptions are permissible under EMTALA, the exemptions cannot interfere with a hospital’s ability to maintain adequate on-call services.

Therefore, we recommend the MEC approve any request for such an exemption, since allowing an exemption to take effect automatically could create EMTALA problems, depending on the number of remaining physicians in the specialty.  Furthermore, we also recommend including language that states the MEC can require a physician who was previously given an exemption to return to the call schedule (on a temporary or permanent basis) if the needs of the Hospital change.

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.

July 11, 2019

QUESTION:        Our Medical Staff Bylaws state that once a quorum has been achieved at a meeting, business may continue and all actions taken will be binding.  I presume this means that the Committee can take action even if, during the course of the meeting, members depart or recuse themselves (and leave the meeting).

Recently, we had a quorum for an MEC meeting where three of our 10 members were absent (in other words, we had seven of 10 members present, which was sufficient to satisfy our quorum requirement of 50%).  Three additional members of the Committee recused themselves when a particular physician matter came up for consideration, citing previous involvement in the matter (two of the three physicians who recused themselves had filed complaints against the physician; the other was heavily involved in prior collegial efforts with the physician and practices in the same specialty as an economic competitor).  After the recusals, we had only four of 10 voting members present to consider the matter.

There was disagreement within the remaining members about whether it would be appropriate to proceed — particularly given that serious action (such as a suspension) was being contemplated.  If the Bylaws say the Committee can “go ahead” even when participation drops below a quorum, is there any problem?

ANSWER:            Medical Staff Bylaws (and related documents) serve a very important role of setting guidelines and rules for the conduct of Medical Staff leadership activities and clarifying rights and responsibilities of Medical Staff members.  To that end, it is important to follow the documents whenever possible.  In your case, you did a good job of following the “rules,” established by your Bylaws.  When your meeting was convened, you ensured that you had satisfied the quorum requirement.  Thus, as per the terms of the Bylaws, the MEC was free to proceed in conducting any of the activities that are within its duties (including considering matters of physician peer review and professional review action).

Whether it is a good idea to proceed in a situation such as that which you described is a different matter than whether it is allowed.  And the answer is, “it depends.”

In hospitals that have smaller Medical Staffs and fewer leaders, it can sometimes be difficult to achieve high quorum requirements for meetings.  So, many such Medical Staffs choose to have low quorum requirements (e.g., “whoever is present” or 10%) and meetings are regularly conducted with few people present.  This allows the Medical Staff leadership to get things done, even though only a few people might be actively participating in leadership activities.  In larger hospitals with (presumably) more resources, some Medical Staffs choose more substantial quorum requirements, particularly for Committees that are deemed to have more substantial and important duties – such as the Credentials Committee, Peer Review Committee, and MEC.

While larger quorums can serve some purposes (e.g., giving assurances to Medical Staff members that policy decisions will not be made by individuals, but, instead, by more diverse bodies), they also can have downsides.  Larger quorums can be difficult to achieve – even in larger organizations – if the culture is such that only a small number of individuals are invested in leadership, rather than purely focusing on clinical duties.  Furthermore, even when practitioners are active in leadership, there are times (such as the situation you described) when the circumstances at hand make it difficult to obtain and sustain a significant quorum.

We encourage Hospital and Medical Staff leaders to thoughtfully consider conflict of interest recusal requirements (for example, when drafting PPE policies) that reflect the organization’s culture and resources.  After all, in some organizations, if all who were “involved at a prior level” were required to recuse themselves from any additional consideration of the matter, nearly all members of the MEC might be conflicted out each time a physician conduct matter came before the Committee (since so many of the leaders on the MEC serve as department chairs and officers who handle collegial matters before they ever get to the MEC level).

Further, even when the Bylaws and policies of the organization state that it is acceptable to proceed, we encourage Hospital and Medical Staff leaders to weigh the pros and cons, benefits and risks.  In the situation you described, though the MEC was free to proceed and take action with respect to the peer review matter before it, the MEC might have increased the appearance of fairness by withholding action on the matter until a greater number of MEC members could be present.  After all, although three members were recused and could not participate at this meeting or any future meeting, you described that three members were also absent.  Presuming they were able to attend a future meeting to act on this matter, then the MEC would be able to have seven of 10 members making the decision, instead of just four of 10.  Technically required?  No.  But whenever something as serious as an adverse professional review action is being considered, it makes sense to try to have the determination made by a larger body of individuals, where practical.  It helps if you end up in a Medical Staff hearing (more witnesses to rely on!).  It helps to give the practitioner who is the subject of the action the sense that this is not a personal matter – but rather a matter agreed on by a wide spread of his or her colleagues.

What if the matter is urgent and action cannot wait?  What if patient safety is clearly at risk?  What if you are never able to get more than seven people to attend MEC meetings?  Or the three absent individuals almost never attend?  Those are all things that would have to be considered.  In some situations, it may make sense to proceed with only four of the 10 members present and voting.

But remember, just because the Bylaws say you can does not always mean that you should.

May 23, 2019

QUESTION:        We have a group practice that is affiliated with our health system.  The group practice employs physicians and advanced practice clinicians.  Two months ago, one of the employed physicians was given notice that the group was not going to renew his contract and his employment would expire in 90 days.  The contract provides that when his employment expires, his appointment and privileges at all health system hospitals expires too.

Last night, the Medical Executive Committee at one of our system hospitals started an investigation into complaints about this physician’s behavior.  If the investigation is not completed by the time his contract expires are we required to report this to the National Practitioner Data Bank as a resignation while under an investigation?
ANSWER:            The answer to this question is no.  You would not have to file a report with the Data Bank because the expiration of appointment and privileges was triggered by an expiration in his employment contract.   There is helpful guidance on this issue in the NPDB Guidebook.  In a related scenario, outlined in the Q&A: Reporting Clinical Privileges Actions section of the Guidebook, it noted that a report would not have to be submitted: “The termination was not a result of a professional review action and, therefore, was not reportable. It does not matter that the employment termination, which was a result of the hospital’s employment termination process, automatically resulted in the end of the practitioner’s clinical privileges.”

While your situation is a little different, the same principle should apply.  The physician did not resign during, or in exchange for not conducting, an investigation.  Rather, the physician’s appointment and privileges automatically expired as a result of the contract expiration.  The controlling act was the expiration of the physician’s contract which affected his appointment and privileges.

As a practical aside, we recommend that serious consideration be given to when an investigation should be commenced.  The Medical Executive Committee should only commence an investigation when it has exhausted collegial, progressive steps or if there are extreme circumstances, such as a pending precautionary suspension.

If the subject physician is employed by a system-affiliated group, there is nothing wrong with considering the physician’s employment status prior to the Medical Executive Committee commencing a formal investigation.  Generally, in these situations, when a physician’s employment is set to expire or be terminated, there would be no need for a formal investigation.  The problem behavior should not be ignored but less formal steps, such as the implementation of a performance improvement plan for behavior, could be taken in the interim to facilitate the smooth and orderly operation of the hospital.  A formal investigation is not likely the best use of your time or resources.

September 6, 2018

QUESTION:        In July, we added two at-large seats to our MEC.  After his first meeting, one new at-large member went to a physician whose behavior was discussed at the MEC meeting (and referred to the Professionalism Committee).  The new at-large member told him all about the discussion, including the names of employees who had reported concerns.  When I, as Chief of Staff, approached the new at-large member, he said he was just doing collegial intervention. I pointed out that he had signed a peer review confidentiality agreement and that we had discussed confidentiality at his orientation session. He responded that he was elected to represent his colleagues and that it was not fair to discuss someone at the MEC “behind his back.”  Should he be removed from the at-large seat?

ANSWER:            Removal may be a drastic and potentially disruptive step.  Most peer review confidentiality agreements contain a statement that breach of the agreement is grounds for removal, so you could do that.  However, you and other leaders may be able to get his commitment to respect confidentiality in the future, and avoid the possible political fallout of removing him.  He will need some additional orientation!  While authorized representatives of a committee can engage in planned collegial intervention, what he did (acting on his own and divulging the names of individuals who reported concerns) was inappropriate.  The MEC referred the matter to the appropriate committee and that process (which typically includes a meeting) should be allowed to proceed.  Most importantly, the identities of individuals who reported concerns should not be disclosed.  If there is retaliation, there are significant risks to everyone.  Moreover, there is a risk of an argument that there has been a waiver of the peer review privilege if this informal unauthorized discussion becomes known.  (Hopefully it will not become known.)  The new at-large member should be counseled, advised that this cannot happen again and asked to agree in writing to abide by the confidentiality agreement.  If he is not willing to agree, then removal may be your only option.

Be sure to join Ian Donaldson and Barbara Blackmond for The Complete Course for Medical Staff Leaders!  You’ll get to participate in a meeting of the MEC where many of your most important questions will be answered!

August 23, 2018

QUESTION:        I have always been told that peer review is conducted by peers — so representatives from legal should not be present at peer review meetings.  But, recently, I heard a Horty Springer attorney suggest that legal should be called “early and often.”  Which is it?

ANSWER:            Both!  Well, sort of.  We have long recommended that collegial meetings between Medical Staff leaders and their colleagues should be “informal” and not include lawyers.  “Informal” does not mean that you should not prepare for those meetings (you should have talking points and an objective when you walk into the meeting).  However, it does mean that if peer review is going to work best, and practitioners are going to buy-in to the process and believe that it is truly oriented towards helping them succeed, then it has to be conducted with finesse and sensitivity to how interventions will be perceived by those under review.  Lawyers do not belong in those meetings.  Lawyers add an air of formality, tend to talk when they should remain quiet, and their mere presence can give the impression that the process is adversarial.  Any conversation that occurs between doctors will look MUCH different if their lawyers are sitting by their sides.  It is for this reason that we have long recommended that the Medical Staff Bylaws and peer review policies of hospitals and medical staffs specifically state that lawyers cannot attend meetings with the practitioner under review (and by the same token, have long told our clients that it would not be advisable for us to be present either).

This does not mean that Medical Staff leaders should not consult counsel early and often throughout the peer review process.  Too often, legal is called to assist an MEC after it has just voted to revoke a practitioner’s privileges or the day after a precautionary suspension has been imposed by the Chief of Staff.  It can be very difficult for your legal counsel to help you follow your processes precisely — and document your actions in a way that will create the best defense — if called after-the-fact.  And waiting to seek advice can result in the leadership sacrificing the chance to pursue additional avenues for resolving the issue (such as automatic relinquishment or a formal performance improvement plan) that may have avoided the need for “disciplinary” action and its attendant costs (such as hearings, appeals, NPDB reports, and litigation).

In an ideal scenario, the Medical Staff leadership would have a close and ongoing working relationship with legal counsel and would discuss with counsel any time there are questions, but at least in the following situations that arise during the course of peer review activities:

  • Whenever addressing a peer review matter involving a practitioner who has previously sued the health system, hospital, or any Medical Staff leader
  • Whenever the practitioner has retained a lawyer and is using a lawyer to communicate with the leadership
  • Whenever the practitioner has claimed failure to comply with the Bylaws or Rules and Regulations or other policies of the Hospital or Medical Staff
  • Whenever the practitioner has claimed that the Hospital or Medical Staff leadership has acted unlawfully with respect to peer review activities
  • Whenever the practitioner has claimed impermissible conflicts of interest, anti-competitive activity, or discrimination is influencing the peer review process
  • Whenever the practitioner claims to be a whistleblower during the course of peer review activity
  • Whenever the peer review concerns involve matters with particularly legal significance (e.g., violation of EMTALA or HIPAA or concerns of medical necessity)
  • Prior to implementing any precautionary suspension, if possible. If previous consultation with legal is not possible (for example, the issue arises in the middle of the night and is an emergency), legal should be consulted as soon as possible (for example, first thing the next morning)
  • Whenever developing a formal Performance Improvement Plan
  • Whenever considering whether to commence a formal investigation
  • Whenever conducting a formal investigation
  • Meetings of the MEC or Board where adverse professional review action will be considered (for example, when the MEC meets to review the report of an investigating committee)
  • When conducting a Medical Staff hearing or appeal
  • When filing an NPDB report or a report to the state licensure board
  • When responding to a subpoena from a licensure board or other governmental agency that is seeking information about a Medical Staff member
  • When drafting a reference for a practitioner about whom some “not nice” things will be said

This list is not necessarily exhaustive.  But we know from experience that the scenarios listed above have legal implications and Medical Staff leaders can protect themselves (and better serve their colleagues) by seeking advice on how to proceed when handling those tough scenarios.  Seasoned leaders often need less guidance, particularly as their experience increases.  But, even then it can be helpful for leaders, who are often full-time clinicians — to rely on legal to help with document preparation and identification of applicable Bylaws, policies, and other matters that need to be considered during the course of review.

To conclude — should legal be involved in peer review?  Absolutely!  With the caveat that meetings with the practitioner under review are meant to focus on peer-to-peer interaction and likely are not the right venue for attorney participation or attendance.

August 17, 2017

QUESTION:        The Chief of Staff recently implemented a precautionary suspension after a Medical Staff member engaged in some seriously unprofessional behavior that was thought to compromise patient safety.  The MEC met to review the matter and lifted the precautionary suspension after four days.  A formal investigation was commenced and that process is now complete and the MEC is considering suspending the practitioner for 30 days.  For purposes of reporting to the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), will that suspension be added to the four-day suspension he already served — meaning that it will constitute a 34-day suspension and will, in turn, become reportable to the NPDB as a suspension lasting more than 30 days?

ANSWER:            Even though the precautionary suspension and the “regular” suspension are related to the same factual matter, they are separate professional review actions and, in turn, they do not “add up” for the sake of reporting.  Therefore, the four-day precautionary suspension was not reportable to the NPDB.  The same will be true of a 30-day suspension, if that action is finalized by the Board.  Be sure to check the applicable requirements of state law, however, as some states require hospitals to report all suspensions of clinical privileges, no matter how long they last.

June 1, 2017

QUESTION:        We are concerned about the language in our Medical Staff Bylaws that states that notification to an individual under investigation may be delayed if informing him or her immediately would compromise the investigation or disrupt the operation of the Medical Staff or the Hospital.  Doesn’t a physician under investigation have a right to know immediately when a resolution has been made to conduct an investigation?

ANSWER:            We understand your concern about delaying the notification to the individual. The reality is that, in most cases, the individual will be given notification as soon as possible once the MEC has decided to commence an investigation. However, there may be some situations where Medical Staff leaders are concerned that the individual might take some action (i.e., tamper with evidence or harassment of others involved) that would compromise the investigation or put others at risk of retaliation. In these rare situations, we recommend having Bylaws language that gives the MEC the discretion to delay notifying the individual about the investigation.

December 22, 2016

QUESTION:        As we are preparing for a medical staff hearing, a member of our Medical Executive Committee asked why our Medical Staff Bylaws state that the Chief Executive Officer appoints the hearing panel and not the Chief of Staff since it’s the Chief of Staff who knows most of the members of the medical staff.  We are trying to figure out whether this was a typo or not.  Should the Chief of Staff appoint the panel?

ANSWER:           No – that’s not a typo!  While we do still sometimes see bylaws which assign the Chief of Staff the responsibility to appoint the hearing panel (and worse yet, occasionally it’s the whole Medical Executive Committee that does so), it’s long been our recommendation that the CEO or the CMO fulfill that responsibility – in consultation with the Chief of Staff.

This is because, generally speaking, the Chief of Staff, both in his/her role as a Medical Staff officer as well as a member of the MEC (the body that will most often be making the adverse recommendation that triggers a hearing) tends to be someone who is very intimately involved in the underlying matter that led to the hearing.  The Chief of Staff will frequently be the individual who engaged in collegial intervention and other progressive steps with the affected physician, who was involved in the development of any conditions or restrictions and, ultimately, is involved in the adverse recommendation made by the MEC as the chair of that committee.  When an involved Chief of Staff is then responsible for appointing the hearing panel and presiding officer, we have seen the argument made that the selections were biased in favor of the MEC and are not neutral  – which can lead to objections and legal challenges (both before and after the hearing) to the appointment of the panel.

While we know that these claims are largely groundless, it is very important to manage the appearance of fairness at all steps of the hearing process.  The goal is to isolate the volunteer physician leaders – like the Chief of Staff – from these types of claims and allegations as much as possible, which is why the CEO or CMO should appoint the panel after consulting with the Chief of Staff.

January 28, 2016

QUESTION:        Our MEC voted at its last meeting to make a contribution to the political campaign of Ben Carson, from the Medical Staff fund. There was some talk about how great it would be to see a doctor leading the country. The Medical Staff fund is comprised solely of dues paid by Medical Staff members. The Chief of Staff and the Secretary/Treasurer are the only signatories to the account. The money is held in an account associated with the hospital’s Employer Identification Number (“EIN”), but the hospital has never spent any money from the account and does not intend to exercise any control over the money. We consider the money to belong to the Medical Staff. So, is the donation okay?

ANSWER:          As a general rule, physicians can spend their money however they see fit. The same is not necessarily true of a Medical Staff. Because the Medical Staff is an integral part of the Hospital, rather than a separate legal entity, when the Medical Staff controls and spends money, it is the legal equivalent of the hospital controlling and spending that money. So, any use of the Medical Staff fund must be consistent with the way the hospital could and would use the money. That does not mean the hospital has to be involved in each decision to spend from the Medical Staff fund (which is why the leaders are signatories to the account). But, it does mean that the hospital should step in to prevent spending that is inconsistent with the hospital’s mission or legal compliance.

In the case of your Medical Staff, a donation to the campaign of Ben Carson would be prohibited if your hospital is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit since the federal tax code which exempts such organizations from taxation prohibits nonprofits from participating in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.

If the physicians on your Medical Staff feel very strongly about supporting Ben Carson, they are of course welcome to pool their resources and submit a campaign contribution together, as a group. But, that money cannot be pulled from the Medical Staff fund without running afoul of the tax code.

If your hospital is a for-profit hospital, you are not subject to the same prohibitions on spending as nonprofits. Even if a campaign contribution would not put you at risk of violating federal law, however, be aware that it may not be consistent with the goals of the organization. In what way does Ben Carson’s success as a presidential candidate matter for the hospital and its patients’ quality? Or its physicians’ ability to provide quality care to hospital patients? If there are identifiable benefits, then perhaps a contribution makes sense. But, if not, then the contribution is a questionable spending of dues.

To avoid any confusion in the future, we suggest adopting a policy governing Medical Staff dues, which specifies who will be the signatories, the authority of the signatories (for example, “any spending over $500 per transaction requires the signatory to obtain the consent of the MEC or Board”), and the types of spending that are and are not appropriate and authorized.