A federal judge has struck down the absolute confidentiality that Utah laws were intended to protect in reviewing doctors' professionalism.
Although the decision by U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene applies only to the suit by Dr. Norman W. Bodily, it apparently establishes a precedent in federal court.Two sections of the Utah code are involved. The first is legislation passed last year to ensure that no liability is placed on anyone giving information to peer review committees or health facilities for evaluations.
The second is a 1981 law that says information furnished for such purposes "are privileged communications which may not be used or received in evidence in any legal proceeding of any kind or character."
Utah's Legislature was so determined to protect this confidentiality that it passed a law saying anyone who violates the restriction is guilty of a class A misdemeanor.
But now Greene has swept away those protections in the case of Bodily, who was fired from McKay-Dee Hospital, Ogden, where he had practiced anesthesiology.
Bodily filed suit in 1985 against Intermountain Health Care Corp., which operates McKay-Dee; hospital administrator H. Gary Pehrson; and Dr. Sheldon O. Ward, a doctor who also practiced anesthesiology at the facility.
"Following an internal peer review investigation, Dr. Bodily's staff privileges at the hospital were voluntarily relinquished or otherwise terminated," Greene wrote in his ruling. Supposedly, some inappropriate behavior was alleged, according to the ruling.
"In November 1983, Dr. Bodily was terminated from employment at IHC," the judge added.
Bodily sued, claiming conspiracy to interfere with his business opportunity, interference, slander, libel, breach of contract and anti-trust violations.
"In the course of discovery (the process by which both sides in a suit can discover information about the other side), Dr. Ward and Mr. Pehrson refused in their depositions to answer certain questions relating to the identity of the individuals who made the complaints about Dr. Bodily to the hospital's review committee," Greene wrote.
He said that whether they should be compelled to give the information depends upon weighing the benefits of encouraging frank and confidential discussion, against Bodily's right to know who his accusers are and the content of their accusations.
Greene said he is not persuaded that the Utah law "outweighs the plaintiff's need for discovery in this particular case.
"The objectives of the discovery are crucial to Dr. Bodily's claims that his revocation of staff privileges and subsequent termination were wrongful," he said.
To deny him an opportunity to discover the identity of his accusers and what they said would be too great a cost to federal policy, Greene said.
"Accordingly, Dr. Bodily's motion to compel discovery as to such matters directly affecting his case is granted," Greene ordered. He said this couldn't be expanded by Bodily beyond the factors with direct bearing on his case.