I did peer review: I saw turf wars, ego, and unfairness


After making an insulting comment to a surgery scheduler, a surgeon become the subject of a peer review investigation.

The surgeon had been called in on a Saturday morning for surgery, but when he arrived at the hospital, staff informed him that the operating room had been incorrectly booked and asked him to come back that afternoon. When the surgeon returned, the room still wasn’t ready, recounted David Beran, DO, a peer reviewer and medical director for the emergency department at University Medical Center New Orleans, in Louisiana. After more waiting and staff uncertainty about which operating room was going to open, the surgeon became frustrated and said to the scheduler: “Any idiot could figure this out!”

During his peer review, the surgeon acknowledged that he shouldn’t have made the rude remark to the scheduler, Dr. Beran said. His exasperation stemmed from an ongoing problem – operating rooms at the hospital were being inefficiently managed.

“The surgeon acknowledged that even though there was a systems issue at the root, that’s not justification to speak to people unprofessionally,” Dr. Beran said. “So, there was education for the surgeon, but the surgeon was also able to explain the frustration that led to that point.”

System problems are commonly encountered by peer reviewers, said Dr. Beran.

“There’s a huge gap between administration and clinical professionals when it comes to peer review,” he said. “So many times, bad situations, whether they’re clinical or behavioral, often boil down to systems issues or some inadequacy, whether it’s an EMR [electronic medical record] problem, an inefficacy, or how complicated a process is for an end user. But having a peer review situation that then leads to a system-level change that prevents that problem from happening again is really unlikely. There’s a huge disconnect between those two.”

Peer review is generally a process that goes on behind closed doors. Although structures may differ, peer review is generally described as the process by which physicians assess the quality of their peers’ work to ensure that standards of care are being met. The process is often used to evaluate issues regarding clinical care as well as behavioral complaints against physicians.

Doctors who undergo peer review frequently share their experiences, but reviewers themselves rarely speak out. For this story, this news organization spoke with several current and former peer reviewers about what really goes on during peer reviews, what frustrates them, and what they’ve learned along the way.

“Peer review processes are in place to build stronger institutions and stronger practices, and they’re supposed to be helpful,” Dr. Beran said. “But because of how opaque they are, it immediately puts physicians on the defensive, and it doesn’t always succeed in what it’s trying to do. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges.”

Biased reviewers taint evaluations

A peer reviewer on and off throughout her career, Indiana family physician Lana Patch, MD, said she always strived to be fair when evaluating fellow physicians. But not every reviewer she encountered operated the same way, she said. Some were biased.

In one case, Dr. Patch peer reviewed a general surgeon who had performed a hysterectomy on a 16-year-old girl. The surgeon believed the teenager likely had an acute appendicitis, but it turned out she had a uterine pathology, Dr. Patch said. The surgeon saved the girl’s life, but the case came under review because of the patient’s age and the fact that her uterus was removed. A local obstetrician-gynecologist weighed in on the case.

“The local ob.gyn. saw it as a turf battle,” recalled Dr. Patch, who is now retired after 30 years of practice in eastern Indiana. “The doctor had nothing but bad to say about the surgeon. He was a competitor.”

Because it was a small hospital, the committee sometimes had trouble finding a specialist who was qualified to give an opinion and who wasn’t in competition with the physician in question, said Dr. Patch. Eventually they found an outside pediatric gynecologist who reviewed the case and concluded that the surgeon had followed the standard of care.

Personal agendas in can come from different directions, said Robert Marder, MD, the author of several books on peer review. Dr. Marder is a consultant who assists with peer review redesign. He has worked with hundreds of medical staff leaders and is a former vice president at the Greeley Company, a consulting firm in Danvers, Mass., that performs peer review redesign. Dr. Marder is president of Robert J. Marder Consulting.

“It goes both ways,” Dr. Marder said. “I’ve seen where somebody with a personal view decides to bring things to the peer review committee specifically because they want the peer review committee to have an adverse view of this person and get them off the medical staff. And I’ve seen hospitals that are uncomfortable with a certain person for whatever reason and want the peer review committee to address it, as opposed to addressing it from a human resource standpoint.”

Dr. Patch recalled a case in which reviewers and hospital leaders were at odds over the credentialing of a physician. Fifteen years earlier, while driving in California, the psychiatrist had been pulled over and was found with an ounce of marijuana, she said.

“We wanted to privilege him,” Dr. Patch said. “As staff physicians, we felt that was 15 years ago, people change over time. Doctors are human beings, too. He seemed to have good credentials and good training. The hospital said, ‘Oh no, we can’t have somebody like this.’ “

The psychiatrist was placed on probation and had to undergo a review every 90 days for about 3 years. Eventually, he was privileged, Dr. Patch said.

Bias among reviewers, including unintentional bias, is also a challenge, Dr. Marder noted. Some initial reviewers score a physician too harshly, he said, whereas others underscore.

“Underscoring is more insidious and more difficult to deal with,” Dr. Marder said. “Underscoring is where the reviewer is too nice. They tend to dismiss things from their colleagues rather than recognize them as an opportunity to help them improve. With underscoring, a lot of committees, if the initial reviewer says the care was appropriate, they don’t even look at the case. They just take that one person’s word for it.”


Next Article: