Is it OK for medical staffs to sue hospital boards?

A recent Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that allowed a medical staff to sue its hospital board could have lasting implications for healthcare facilities, according to MedPage Today.

The case, pitting Avera Marshall Regional Medical Center against its own employees, found its way to the state Supreme Court after two lower courts ruled in favor of the hospital. The higher court overturned the previous rulings and stated that the hospital staff's bylaws constitute an "enforceable contract" that can result in litigation if they are breached, which the plaintiffs in the Avera Marshall case allege their hospital "unilaterally" did in 2010, MedPage reported.

"It's a clear victory for physicians and medical staffs," Kathy Kimmel, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader after the Supreme Court ruled in her clients' favor. "If it's a contract, you can't just unilaterally violate it without consequence."

The changes to the hospital staff's bylaws came one year after the facility was acquired by Avera Health Systems, according to the Argus Leader. A schism between doctors employed by the hospital's medical group and those employed by the Affiliated Community Medical Center, which operates clinics in southwestern Minnesota, was the impetus for the change to the bylaws, a move intended to break the logjam between the two groups, MedPage reported.

The Avera Marshall doctors also accused the hospital's board of interfering with the medical staff's internal operations; appointing physicians to the staff without their input; and disciplining a physician without following the bylaws-mandated peer review procedures, according to MedPage.

While the ruling only applies to Minnesota, the unabated trend of healthcare provider consolidation may spawn similar cases if previously independent providers begin to butt heads with their new ruling bodies. Indeed, almost 70 percent of hospital CIOs polled in a 2013 survey indicated that "failure to agree on a governance structure" was the biggest driver of failed mergers and acquisitions, FierceHealthIT reported.

To avoid such disputes, hospital administrators should make a point to "hear the input of the medical staff on matters affecting patient care" as well as avoid "saying who is going to lead the medical staff and what the medical staff is going to discuss," Kimmel told MedPage.

To learn more:
- read the MedPage report
- read the Argus Leader article