PRIVACY: Supreme Court Allows Access to Doctors’ Records
The Supreme Court yesterday let stand a controversial ruling that allowed access to records of hospital peer review meetings, turning away an appeal by several high-profile medical organizations. The justices "refused to intervene in a closely watched lawsuit against an emergency room doctor in Clear Lake, CA, who told the parents of a gravely ill infant to drive to another hospital" to see a specialist, where the child died. Dr. Wolfgang Schug was acquitted of criminal charges, but the child's parents are pursuing damages against him and the Redbud Community Hospital. All along, attorneys for the family have attempted to subpoena the records of the peer review session held at the hospital after the baby's death. A California law protects the confidentiality of these conversations, but as the family sued under a federal law that regulates emergency care, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that the law does not apply. "The state privilege does not apply in federal court," said U.S. District Judge Susan Illston. The California Medical Association, the California Academy of Family Physicians, the California Health Care Association and the American Medical Association joined the defendants in appealing the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and then to the Supreme Court. Catherine Hanson, an attorney for the CMA, said, "Our concern is that people will not be so enthusiastic about doing this if they feel the information will be turned around and used as a sword against them. ... When you talk about the attorney-client privilege, judges understand that. But when you turn to other professions, they seem to see less value in the privilege of confidentiality," she added. But Richard Massa, who represents the family, said, "These people are answerable to no one. It is a secret society for their protection. ... For two years, they have used this peer review privilege to block me from getting documents and depositions. This means they now have to turn over all this secret information and I couldn't be happier." The Los Angeles Times notes, however, that the rulings by the appeals court and the Supreme Court may not be the "last word" on the case, as neither court likes to "review a case until it is complete" (Savage, 6/8).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.