September 13, 2018

QUESTION:        We are reviewing an application from a new applicant who has excellent credentials with respect to his education, training, experience and current clinical competence.  However, the applicant has had trouble working with others and was even subject to a behavioral performance improvement plan at his last hospital.  The Credentials Committee is split over how important behavior really is when a candidate otherwise has excellent credentials.  How should we proceed?

ANSWER:            This is a question we hear often.  You finally find a physician who has excellent credentials, but acts out a little.  While everyone has a “bad hair day” once in a while, it is a mistake to bring someone into your organization whose behavior will undermine your culture of safety.

This is the terminology used by The Joint Commission when it issued its 2008 Sentinel Event Alert.  According to the Sentinel Event Alert:

“Intimidating and disruptive behaviors can foster medical errors, contribute to poor patient satisfaction and to preventable adverse outcomes, increase the cost of care, and cause qualified clinicians, administrators and managers to seek new positions….All intimidating and disruptive behaviors are unprofessional and should not be tolerated.”

The Sentinel Event Alert was followed by the adoption of a leadership standard that required hospitals to adopt a code of conduct or professionalism policy.

Recognizing the importance of working professionally and respectfully with others, most credentials policies require applicants to demonstrate an “ability to work harmoniously with others, including interpersonal and communication skills sufficient to enable them to maintain professional relationships with patients, families, and other members of health care teams.” The bottom line is that behavior matters in the quality of care you provide in your hospital.

So in credentialing the applicant, get as much information from previous hospitals and past employers about his or her ability to work with others.  Ask for a copy of the behavioral performance improvement plan.  Ask for a copy of the underlying concerns that led to the adoption of the performance improvement plan.  Request a copy of any correspondence that relates to behavioral concerns.  And don’t forget to make follow-up phone calls to references and to others who may have worked with the applicant in the past to get a candid evaluation of any problems.

A physician who experienced a problem period because of personal issues, but then improved should not be problematic.  A physician with a longstanding pattern of inappropriate and unprofessional behavior is not likely to change when he or she lands at your hospital.  Don’t forget the middle option of conditional appointment which can also be useful in laying out expectations and consequences should the inappropriate behavior reoccur.

Please join us in our national program – Credentialing for Excellence – where we discuss this and other credentialing challenges.

July 20, 2017

QUESTION:        Our Leadership Council is developing a Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”) for a practitioner at our hospital who does not play well with others.  One member of our leadership team suggested that we send the practitioner out for a psychiatric evaluation before finalizing the PIP.  Does this make sense?

ANSWER:            As a rule of thumb, we recommend that you stay away from requesting psychiatric evaluations from practitioners who have failed to meet your Medical Staff’s standards regarding professionalism.  In our experience, such an evaluation only tends to cloud the Leadership Council’s thinking on how best to address the inappropriate behavior that has been identified. Additionally, a request for an evaluation might give the practitioner a basis for claiming that he or she was discriminated against under the ADA if disciplinary action is ultimately taken.  That is why we believe it is better to focus on the behavior at issue rather than spending too much time and energy trying to identify its cause.

Of course, impairment and “burnout” are real concerns.  So, if there is compelling evidence that suggests that the practitioner is dealing with a legitimate health issue, then an evaluation may be appropriate.  But that should be managed through your process on practitioner impairment, not your Professionalism Policy.

To make sure you have the tools you need to manage difficult scenarios like this, please join Barbara Blackmond and Rachel Remaley on August 1, 2017 for a special audio conference on “best practices” for your Professionalism Policy.  More information can be found here.

November 5, 2015

QUESTION:        In response to a credentials verification inquiry about a former staff member, one of our newest department chiefs disclosed that this former staff member had been subject to a performance improvement plan. Now a lawyer for that former staff member has demanded a retraction and threatened to sue for defamation. What should we do?


ANSWER:           Refer the letter to counsel, who can send a response educating the lawyer about custom and practice in credentialing and about the immunity for provision of accurate information. There is nothing to retract if the response was true, nor would a defamation claim succeed. (More importantly, such a letter can help with other potential audiences, in case a suit is filed.) Credentialing would break down if no one responded truthfully to verification inquiries. The Health Care Quality Improvement Act provides for immunity in favor of those who provide information to other hospitals. 42 U.S.C. Section 11111(a)(2). However, even meritless suits are a drain on resources and may have a chilling effect on future leaders.

Immunity helps if there is a suit, but are there ways to minimize the likelihood of a suit? If there were issues with a former staff member, it may be prudent for all inquiries to be referred to a central place, such as a VPMA/CMO, who can guide a new Chief. Your Medical Staff Services Professional can also be a great help in fielding such inquiries and helping new leaders who have never faced such an issue. In the future, you might consider, as a policy matter, developing a standard communication for use when inquiries relate to a practitioner who experienced concerns, advising inquiring hospitals that no response to any credentialing inquiry will be provided without a signed specific release. That will send a message without revealing anything.

Be sure you have excellent and strong release and immunity language in your Bylaws or Credentials Policy. And – be sure your new Chiefs attend our Credentialing Clinic or Complete Course for Medical Staff Leaders! The first step to an excellent medical staff is careful credentialing!