The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled that a state law, establishing confidentiality for medical provider peer review proceedings, did not apply to a contractor staffing a hospital’s emergency department. The hospital, the contractor and the physician face a lawsuit from the patient and her husband, alleging that the physician failed to diagnose an emergent, underlying heart problem during an emergency room visit and that the patient suffered a heart attack just days after she was discharged without treatment. In the course of litigation discovery the patient was seeking the physician’s performance review, which the contractor and the hospital argued was protected from discovery under the Pennsylvania Peer Review Protection Act (the “Act”). In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed a finding by the state’s Superior Court that the Act did not shield the hospital or the contractor staffing the hospital’s emergency department from discovery of the physician’s performance reviews.
The Supreme Court confirmed the Superior Court’s conclusion that the document was not entitled to protection under the Act because the performance review had been drafted by the physician’s supervisor, and not by an employee of the hospital itself. The Court also found that a business entity, like the contractor emergency medicine group, was not contemplated under the peer review protection statutes and therefore could not claim the privilege itself.
In another recent case eroding peer review privilege, an Illinois hospital claimed that certain of its documents were confidential and that the court should not have ordered the hospital to produce the records during discovery in a civil case. The hospital argued that the Illinois Medical Studies Act protects those documents from disclosure. Specifically, the hospital contended that its peer-review policy provides that, if certain indicators are met (such as the death of a patient and a concern raised about that death), then an investigation begins. The hospital insisted that because the peer-review policy authorized the investigation, everything that was discovered through that investigation is privileged under the Medical Studies Act. However, the appellate court agreed with the trial court and said that all of the documents at issue should be produced stating that the Medical Studies Act does not protect against disclosure of information generated before the peer-review process began and that the hospital’s argument was contrary to over 20 years of precedent establishing that the Medical Studies Act cannot be used to conceal relevant evidence that was created before a quality-assurance committee or its designee authorized an investigation into a specific incident.
The takeaway here is that courts are strictly construing peer review protection statutes. Providers cannot be assured that their peer review records are protected unless the peer review records are created in full compliance with legal and regulatory requirements.