At Walker Medical Law we are very frequently called upon to assist a physician who suddenly is faced with the prospect of being terminated from a hospital. You, as a physician, must immediately realize that any action taken to remove you from the hospital can be career-threatening, as often, the matter is reported by the hospital to the National Practitioner Data Bank and that report is immediately visible to the New York State Department of Health, Office of Professional Medical Conduct (OPMC). OPMC can then call you in for an Interview to explain the matter. That, in turn, can cause charges of unprofessional conduct to be brought against you, causing your entire professional life to become in jeopardy.
Moreover, even if the hospital does not report the matter to the Data Bank or to OPMC directly, there is a question on the license renewal form which you must fill out every two years that asks if you have been terminated or, and this is important, have you resigned to avoid being terminated. If you did resign from your position to shut down an investigation by the hospital, you should answer “yes” to this question. Many physicians, however, try to convince themselves that they can legitimately answer “no” to the question, but if the matter does come to OPMC’s attention they may take the position that you falsified your answer to prevent an OPMC inquiry. In other words, OPMC may decide that you are a liar, and that is never good.
So, what to do when you are told that there is an investigation into your work at the hospital?
First, realize that this is an enormously important and potentially dangerous situation, so it is usually better to do a lot of listening when you are sat down for a discussion with the hospital administration. Remember, anything you say will be written down and will be used against you at a later date.
Second, do not think that you are immune from danger just because you have worked at the hospital for many years and are a valuable member of the team. Believe me, once the hospital decides that you are for some reason a liability, or that it can obtain your contributions from another source at a much lower price, you are, to put it indelicately, roadkill. The hospital will look out only for the hospital, and you are simply a very replaceable cog in the organization. All of your “friends” in the hospital suddenly will not return your phone calls or emails as they will be afraid to get on the wrong side of the issue and put themselves in harm’s way.
Thirdly, get a lawyer who has experience with these issues. You need an employment lawyer who can negotiate the best possible exit strategy from a monetary point of view. There will be a Resignation Agreement and you want to obtain the best possible outcome in monetary issues and in the wording of the Agreement itself. That Agreement will define your exit from the hospital, and often the employment attorney can obtain a large payment for you along with extended health care benefits and other terms that can be valuable to you. Additionally, you want language in the Agreement that will be helpful when you apply for employment at another hospital. For example, you will want a statement in the Agreement that says, “The hospital will provide a favorable letter of reference signed by the Chief of the service when requested by any future potential employer.”
Fourth, you want to have input from an attorney who has experience with OPMC and licensure issues. Remember, if and when OPMC comes calling, you want to have as many facts in your favor as possible to explain what happened and why you left the hospital. OPMC can, and will, obtain the hospital’s documents concerning the matter, so you want to be able to tell your side of the story in a factual manner that puts you in the most favorable light. The planning for the OPMC encounter has to start as early as possible in this very unpleasant process.
The reasons why hospitals move to terminate physicians are varied. Sometimes there has been a change in leadership at the hospital and it has been decided, behind closed doors, that your position can be taken by a more favored member of the new team and, accordingly, some reasons have to be found to get you out of the organization. Take it from us, the hospital will investigate you from all angles and find reasons why your patient care has been negligent, or that you are suddenly viewed as a “disruptive physician,” with examples of how your obnoxious behavior has consistently upset patients and staff, even if there is not a scintilla of real evidence to support this claim. We have seen this type of claim used against older physicians who are said to have used politically incorrect language when speaking to residents and/or the nursing staff. Again, you will find little, if any, support from those staff members with whom you worked for many years—everyone is out to protect him or herself, and you are expendable.
There are many other issues to discuss in this type of situation, but suffice it to say that you can be seriously injured in this scenario and, accordingly, you must immediately recognize the problem for what it is and immediately take steps to protect yourself and your family. After all, you only have one career to preserve.