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Judge Emphasizes Confidentiality Provision in Peer Review Protection Act

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A Court of Common Pleas judge in Monroe County granted a hospital’s protective order in part, holding that Plaintiffs may inquire about statements made by a medical quality officer to a patient concerning inconclusive results from peer-review proceedings.  Plaintiffs, however, are prohibited from questioning the officer about any peer-review materials and discussions.  Judge Arthur L. Zulick further held that discussing peer-review conclusions with patients does not waive the confidentiality afforded by the Peer Review Protection Act (“the Act”) to review committees.

The underlying case involved a surgery that resulted in the patient losing his left kidney.  Following the hospital’s internal investigation, its chief medical quality officer met with the plaintiffs to discuss the review committee’s opinion as to what transpired during the patient’s operation.  Once the suit began, Plaintiffs noticed the officer’s deposition, and the hospital responded with a motion for protective order in which it argued that the plaintiffs should be prevented from asking about the hospital’s internal review proceedings.  Plaintiffs in turn contended that the chief medical quality officer’s meeting with the plaintiffs waived the Act’s confidentiality provision and thus rendered the review materials and discussions discoverable.  Judge Zulick found otherwise.

Judge Zulick relied on the Superior Court’s ruling in Dodson v. DeLeo, 872 A.2d 1237 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2005) in making his ruling.  In that case, the Superior Court overturned a trial court’s decision that had held that a defendant physician’s credentialing reports were not protected by the Act because that information could be found elsewhere in the patient’s medical records.  In finding that the reports were indeed within the Act’s scope of protection, the Superior Court stated that “[holding] otherwise would have a chilling effect on the peer review process and would clearly run afoul of the purpose of the statute.”  Id. at 1244.

As the Dodson court described, the Peer Review Protection Act was promulgated in 1974 to “facilitate comprehensive, honest, and potentially critical evaluations of medical professionals by their peers.”  Id. at 1242.   The Act further reflects the legislature’s determination that, “because of the expertise and level of skill required in the practice of medicine, the medical profession itself is in the best position to police its own activities.”  Id. (quoting Young v. The W. Pa. Hosp., 722 A.2d 153 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1987)).  As such, the Act states in relevant part that “proceedings and records of a review committee shall be held in confidence and shall not be subject to discovery or introduction into evidence in any civil action against a professional health care provider.”  63 P.S. § 425.4.

In the matter before Judge Zulick, he found that the facts before him paralleled those in Dodson.  Accordingly, he held that allowing discovery of the hospital’s entire peer-review materials would undermine the Act’s intentions of safeguarding health care professionals’ ability to police themselves and conduct root cause analyses, morbidity and mortality meetings, and other confidential investigations in order to promote patient safety.  Notwithstanding that finding, the plaintiffs were free to question the chief medical quality officer about his statements to them concerning the review’s determination.

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