Commentary

Proper steps for physicians to follow if they find themselves under investigation


 

Physician clients will find themselves in difficult legal situations from time to time. Sometimes it’s an investigation for Medicare fraud or other illegal conduct. Other times it’s a review related to Drug Enforcement Administration or licensure compliance. More commonly, physicians are involved in employer inquiries into workplace misconduct.

The common element among these very different legal issues is that physicians typically have no idea what to do when they find themselves potentially in trouble, but how they choose to deal with the issue can have significant consequences.

In my opinion, physicians should have a relationship with a health care lawyer or firm in place before any investigation occurs. Whether they are being investigated for a license or medical staff issue, Medicare fraud, or contract issue, it’s important to know where to go for help quickly. Even if the physician does not retain a lawyer in advance, having the name of a qualified person who can be called for a variety of health care issues is already a step in the right direction.

More important than having a knowledgeable lawyer is actually contacting that lawyer. Some physicians will sit and chat with the Federal Bureau of Investigation or other investigators for hours, only to call me after the visitors leave. I have other clients who handle important medical staff hearings, discipline meetings, and license investigations on their own without consulting counsel first. In all of these situations, it can be too late to help a physician once their case has progressed too far down the road.

Employment issues arising in the workplace setting are the most common and troubling. Physicians will – without a second thought – attend a human resources–called or other meeting without thinking through the reason for the meeting, whether they are prepared or not, and without considering whether counsel could be helpful. Sometimes in the moment, there may be no choice, but most meetings are scheduled in advance with ample time for consultation and planning.

Many issues that arise in the workplace setting are troubling because they can be easily avoided. The No. 1 piece of advice which I offer to young physician clients as they enter the workplace is: Remember that nobody in the workplace is your friend. Every word that is said, text that is sent, gesture that is made, can put you at risk. You must assume that all conversations and messages will be shared with others. Joking around in the operating room about sexual escapades, sending texts with flirtatious comments, making comments that can be construed as racist or homophobic, or raising your voice in a moment of frustration are all real examples of situations where physicians ended up disciplined and terminated. Are these innocent comments or ones the doctor thought they could get away with among “friends?” From a human resources perspective, there is little tolerance for such conduct, regardless of the doctor’s intent.

There are also situations in the workplace that are more troubling. Many times a physician is accused of noncompliance with a contract or a policy, when in fact the accuser is retaliating or engaging in efforts to discredit a doctor. I have seen this happen where minority physicians complain about how they are treated and are suddenly investigated for a performance issue. I have had female physicians criticize a business decision at a committee meeting, only to receive a formal notice that their “negative attitude” violated a policy.

In these situations, talking with counsel before a meeting with the employer representative is recommended and can impact the trajectory of a physician’s career. Physicians cannot and should not handle such events on their own.

If a physician is forced or chooses to attend a meeting with an investigator or other party without counsel, there are some steps to consider (subject to the type of meeting and the specific circumstances).

  • Listen more than you talk. Make sure you know the name of everyone who is present and their role within the organization.
  • If you have previously provided any written or oral statements, or have written correspondence related to the issues at hand, review all materials in advance. If there is anything you think needs to be corrected or added, let the interviewer know that at the outset.
  • Be familiar with your own employment agreement/policies and the terms that may be relevant to the discussion or meeting.
  • Be calm, honest, and forthcoming in response to the questions, and don’t embellish or exaggerate.
  • Avoid personal attacks on anyone. This generally serves to weaken an argument and credibility.
  • Be prepared to explain your allegations or defense, and when you do so, keep in mind that the interviewer may not know the history, background, or details of any of the issues.
  • If the reason for the situation relates to race or national origin, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or other protected category, don’t hesitate to say so.
  • Answer the question you’re asked, but if you feel that the interviewer needs more information or is not understanding what you’ve said, feel free to explain. Be forthcoming, but don’t dominate the conversation.
  • If they ask whether you have counsel, be honest, but decline to provide them any information about what you discussed with counsel, as those conversations are privileged.
  • If the interviewer asks to record the conversation, you can agree, but ask to be provided a copy of the recording.
  • Know your rights in advance. If the subject of the meeting is governed by bylaws or policies, for example, you may have the right to bring an attorney or adviser to the meeting, receive advance notice of who will be attending the meeting and the subject matter, and avail yourself of specific procedures or appeal rights of any discipline or decisions decided during the meeting.

There are many circumstances that can lead to a physician being under investigation or interrogation. In every single circumstance, it is ideal to seek legal counsel immediately. Whether the physician has actually engaged in wrongful conduct or not, without proper handling a physician’s career can be permanently, and sometimes irrevocably, affected.

Ms. Adler is a shareholder and health law practice group manager for Chicago-based law firm Roetzel, a member of the Illinois Association of Healthcare Attorneys, and a current advisory board member at DePaul College of Law Health Law Institute. She disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.

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