Cardiothoracic surgeon J. Marvin Smith III, MD, had always thrived on a busy practice schedule, often performing 20-30 surgeries a week. A practicing surgeon for more than 40 years, Dr. Smith said he had no plans to slow down anytime soon.
But Dr. Smith said his career was derailed when leaders at Methodist Healthcare System of San Antonio initiated a sudden peer review proceeding against him. The hospital system alleged certain surgeries performed by Dr. Smith had excessive mortality rates. When he proved the data inaccurate, Dr. Smith said administrators next claimed he was cognitively impaired and wasn’t safe to practice.
Dr. Smith has now been embroiled in a peer review dispute with the hospital system for more than 2 years and says the conflict has essentially forced him out of surgical practice. He believes the peer review was “malicious” and was really launched because of complaints he made about nurse staffing and other issues at the hospital.
“I think it is absolutely in bad faith and is disingenuous what they’ve told me along the way,” said Dr. Smith, 73. “It’s because I pointed out deficiencies in nursing care, and they want to get rid of me. It would be a lot easier for them if I had a contract and they could control me better. But the fact that I was independent, meant they had to resort to a malicious peer review to try and push me out.”
Dr. Smith had a peer review hearing with Methodist in March 2021, and in April, a panel found in Dr. Smith’s favor, according to Dr. Smith. The findings were sent to the hospital’s medical board for review, which issued a decision in early May.
Eric A. Pullen, an attorney for Dr. Smith, said he could not go into detail about the board’s decision for legal reasons, but that “the medical board’s decision did not completely resolve the matter, and Dr. Smith intends to exercise his procedural rights, which could include an appeal.”
Methodist Hospital Texsan and its parent company, Methodist Health System of San Antonio, did not respond to messages seeking comment about the case. Without hearing from the hospital system, its side is unknown and it is unclear if there is more to the story from Methodist’s view.
The problem is not new, but some experts, such as Lawrence Huntoon, MD, PhD, say the practice has become more common in recent years, particularly against independent doctors.
Dr. Huntoon believes there is a nationwide trend at many hospitals to get rid of independent physicians and replace them with employed doctors, he said.
However, because most sham peer reviews go on behind closed doors, there are no data to pinpoint its prevalence or measure its growth.
“Independent physicians are basically being purged from medical staffs across the United States,” said Dr. Huntoon, who is chair of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons’ Committee to Combat Sham Peer Review. “The hospitals want more control over how physicians practice and who they refer to, and they do that by having employees.”
Anthony P. Weiss, MD, MBA, chief medical officer for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center said it has not been his experience that independent physicians are being targeted in such a way. Dr. Weiss responded to an inquiry sent to the American Hospital Association for this story.
“As the authority for peer review rests with the organized medical staff (i.e., physicians), and not formally with the hospital per se, the peer review lever is not typically available as a management tool for hospital administration,” said Dr. Weiss, who is a former member of the AHA’s Committee on Clinical Leadership, but who was speaking on behalf of himself.
A spokesman for the AHA said the organization stands behinds Dr. Weiss’ comments.
Peer review remains a foundational aspect of overseeing the safety and appropriateness of healthcare provided by physicians, Dr. Weiss said. Peer review likely varies from hospital to hospital, he added, although the Healthcare Quality Improvement Act provides some level of guidance as does the American Medical Association Code of Medical Ethics (section 9.4.1).
“In essence, both require that the evaluation be conducted in good faith with the intention to improve care, by physicians with adequate training and knowledge, using a process that is fair and inclusive of the physician under review,” he said. “I believe that most medical staffs abide by these ethical principles, but we have little data to confirm this supposition.”