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Ruling in Physician Whistle-Blower Case Could Have Far-Reaching Consequences
A California Supreme Court ruling last month in a case involving a Modesto physician who filed a lawsuit challenging the termination of his hospital privileges could have significant long-lasting ramifications, according to some observers.
In Fahlen v. Sutter Central Valley Hospitals, the court upheld a physician’s right to file a whistle-blower lawsuit before exhausting the peer-review process. Some experts contend the case could fundamentally alter hospital-physician relationships in California.
Mark Fahlen, a nephrologist, filed suit in March 2011 after Sutter Health rescinded his privileges to care for patients at Memorial Medical Center in Modesto. The suit included a whistle-blower claim under the state Health & Safety Code, alleging the hospital’s actions against Fahlen were in retaliation for his complaints about insubordination and substandard care by hospital nurses.
The hospital sought to have the suit dismissed because Fahlen had not first exhausted the peer-review process of challenging the action.
In a unanimous decision, the state Supreme Court ruled a physician claiming that his or her hospital privileges are restricted or terminated as an act of retaliation for whistle-blowing may file a civil suit without first exhausting the professional-review process.
The case was closely watched by hospital officials and physicians, many of whom believe the decision will have an impact on the peer-review process in California hospitals.
The California Hospital Association and California Medical Association filed briefs on opposite sides of the case.
Milestone Case? Depends Who You Ask
“Fahlen is definitely a milestone case,” said Steve Schear, Fahlen’s lead attorney.
“It is the first case since the California Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Westlake v. Superior Court to allow a California physician to go directly to court to sue for bad faith peer review. Because the courts in California and throughout the nation have been extremely deferential to hospital peer review decisions, hospital peer review has become the preferred mechanism of silencing physician whistleblowers.
Hot Job: Physician Assistant Denise Harty a key part of patient care
She was very supportive of my decision and was very instrumental in assisting me with some of my studies. She is in the medical field as a medical technologist and her medical background complemented my education in P.A. school, Harty said. Physician assistants rank 39th on the 2012 Hoosier Hot 50 jobs list produced by the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. The list, which ranks jobs based on expected wage and demand in 2020, is compiled using information based on Indianas occupational projections and wage data from the Occupational Employment Statistics survey. The profession is expected to grow by 290 jobs over the next six years. Many state universities and colleges offer physician assistant degrees, such as Butler, Indiana and Indiana State universities. In 2016, the University of Evansville will launch its own program. In Indiana, there are many underserved areas that need medical care and a physician assistant is one solution to this dilemma. We are already seeing an increase in the physician assistant schools in Indiana, Harty said. The Affordable Care Act doubles the projected need for PAs and Indiana is certainly preparing for such a need. Q: How do you expect your profession to change or evolve over the next 10 years? A: The trend I see in the future is a push for more primary care and internal medicine physician assistants to handle the underserved areas and the increased load of patients from our health-care system.