Doctor sues hospital system for denying reaccreditation

Physician says action due to criticism of care there

August 08, 2004|By Artika Rangan | Artika Rangan,SUN STAFF

An Aberdeen physician is suing Harford Memorial Hospital and its owner, Upper Chesapeake Health Inc., in a dispute over the hospital's refusal to reaccredit her for medical staff privileges there.

Dr. Linda Freilich, a board-certified kidney specialist and internist with offices in Bel Air, first filed a federal lawsuit against the hospital in December 2000. She lost the federal case on appeal in December 2002. She filed a state suit in April last year.

In both suits, Freilich alleged that the hospital's decision not to reaccredit her was made in retaliation to her complaints about the care her patients received at Harford Memorial.

Upper Chesapeake and Harford Memorial officials declined to comment on the case. But in court documents, the hospital denied any impropriety had occurred regarding Freilich and said that its decision was based on the recommendation of hospital officials after a review of Freilich's record.

Freilich referred questions to her attorney, Alan Ullberg of Washington, who said a motions hearings is scheduled in Harford Circuit Court on Wednesday.

In the latest suit, Freilich said she maintained unrestricted privileges at Harford Memorial from Oct. 26, 1982, until April 12, 2000, when she was denied hospital privileges.

Freilich claims her application for privileges was denied because she advocated the reporting of substandard care, physician errors, disparate patient treatment and substandard hospital services.

Under Maryland law, all doctors must apply every two years to be reappointed to their hospital, which gives them staff privileges to work, admit and treat patients there.

In 1998, Freilich applied for reappointment to her hospital privileges. Her application was referred to a peer review known as the credentials committee, which, according to the lawsuit, recommended a one-year reappointment.

According to court documents, the hospital's medical executive committee approved a recommendation to reappoint her, but reversed its decision in April 1999, after it was asked by the hospital's board of directors to further review her application. In April 2000, the hospital's board of directors upheld that decision.

In a letter written that month to Freilich, Peggy Vaughan, senior vice president of medical affairs at Upper Chesapeake, explained the hospital's decision:

"You have failed to demonstrate ethics and behavior in the hospital, cooperation with hospital personnel as it relates to patient care and the orderly operation of the hospital and proper general demeanor and attitude with respect to the hospital, its patients and its personnel," the letter reads. It is included in the suit.

To Freilich and her lawyers, the central issue concerns doctors being able to speak against a hospital.

"What does the hospital have to gain [by not reappointing Freilich]?" asked her attorney, Ullberg. "She's a very smart doctor with a very, very clean record, but they want to keep her out as a way of intimidating other doctors from speaking out against the hospital."

Freilich, Ullberg said, claimed that some unlicensed nurses were caring for patients on the verge of release from the hospital and that her kidney patients were not adequately monitored.

When asked about those specific allegations, Jennifer Rupkey, spokeswoman for Harford Memorial, declined to comment.

Catherine Crowley, spokeswoman for the Maryland Hospital Association, said she could not comment on Freilich's case, but said it is difficult to answer claims that doctors are afraid to speak against the hospital.

"Reapplying is such an interactive process," she said, explaining that a medical staff makes a recommendation to the hospital board. The board then votes on the medical staff's recommendation.

Freilich said Harford Memorial Hospital's board ignored the medical executive committee's initial decision.

Crowley said that although it would be hard to deny a doctor privileges in such a situation, it could happen.

"It's not a step that's taken lightly," she said. "It would require a serious amount of discussion and a considerable amount of research. It would be based on a very thorough review."

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