HOWARD COUNTY General Hospital, which recently has been going through a period of expansion and reorganization aimed at building its reputation and standing among community facilities, was dealt a blow last week that should not be underestimated.
The broadside comes in the form of an $80 million federal lawsuit filed by Dr. Kline A. Price, a Columbia gynecologist. He is alleging that he was improperly suspended from the hospital, in part because he is black.
In his suit, Dr. Price contends not only that he was mistreated by his fellow physicians, but that some of them made serious errors that were ignored. And he names names.
His suspension seems to stem entirely from his use of a procedure called a hysteroscopy, which allows a gynecologist to view a woman's uterus using a fiber optic micro-camera.
Medical experts say the procedure is not expensive or experimental, but that it may not be warranted in some cases.
Dr. Price claims he did nothing to threaten the lives of his patients.
But determining the validity of his allegations in the lawsuit is nearly impossible at this juncture and best left to the courts. I will stay clear of trying to pass judgment on the case.
Still, no matter how one views the situation, the damage done to the hospital has the potential to be enormous.
That's too bad, because Howard County General was doing a remarkable job of embarking on a new era, trying to maintain a lean, cost-efficient operation even while expanding services.
A major reorganization that began earlier this year seemed like a prudent and caring way of increasing the hospital profits. By merging departments and reassigning personnel, hospital officials said, they would undergo their belt-tightening without laying off any of the institution's roughly 1,300 employees.
At the same time, construction is under way on a 35,000 square-foot building to house the Ambulatory Service Center, with six operating rooms and a variety of outpatient services.
Also this year, in a joint venture with the University of Maryland Medical Center, the hospital opened its first free-standing oncology center. It is being touted as one of the most advanced on the East Coast.
All of this was boding well for a hospital that had a meager start in 1979, when it opened with only 59 beds and operated essentially as inpatient support for the Columbia Medical Plan.
In its first year, the hospital was turned over to a community-based board of trustees to make it a private, not-for-profit institution.
And since then, it has grown in to a 223-bed, acute care community hospital.
Despite these advances, Howard County General is nothing approaching a Goliath, a situation that makes it even more vulnerable to huge lawsuits.
Essentially, the hospital sits in the shadow of many of the other major medical institutions in the Baltimore area, with Johns Hopkins Hospital, of course, looming largest.
Competition among hospitals has reached a critical peak in recent years. Besmirching a facility can have a crippling effect.
At the same time, Dr. Price has a right to have his concerns heard. His allegations of racism seem the most damaging.
Unfortunately, in the wake of the O.J. Simpson trial, we are undergoing a painful period of redefining race relations in this country.
It is not so easy any more to dismiss allegations of racism or accept them as fact.
Bureaucrats and the courts will be the final arbiters of such disputes, but of course it is important that all of us treat these issues with fairness and understanding.
What would not be fair at this point is to allow this lawsuit to sway public opinion against the hospital. The damage would go well beyond reputation.
It may seem meager, but Howard County General has a medical staff of more than 500 physicians and has admitted an estimated 13,000 patients during its tenure.
By 1994, approximately 3,100 babies had been born there, and more than 32,000 patients have come through its emergency room.
It is a valuable community institution that, it is hoped, will not lose ground no matter how valid the accusations against it may be.
Kevin Thomas is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.