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Airing the Hospital’s Dirty Laundry: Developments In Keeping the Evaluation of Adverse Incidents Confidential

June 1, 2016

By David R. Bear, Esq.*

Key Points:

  • Since 2004, based upon a constitutional amendment known as Amendment VII, Florida patients have a right to access any records made in the course of business and all adverse incident records.
  • Amendment VII supersedes Florida statutory protection for adverse incident reviews.
  • Attorney work product can provide privilege to an adverse incident review.
  • External reviews are not covered by Amendment VII.
  • Hospital review that is maintained inside a Patient Safety Evaluation System is shielded by the Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act.

 

In 2004, the availability of hospital records regarding adverse incidents in Florida changed dramatically. Prior to that date, statutes that protected the confidentiality of the peer review process § 395.0193 and § 766.101, credentialing § 395.0191, risk management reports of adverse incidents § 395.0197 and risk management reports of quality assurance § 766.1016, provided hospitals with confidentiality in their internal review. The courts recognized that these privileges were “[d]esigned to provide that degree of confidentiality necessary for the full, frank medical peer evaluation… .” Crugar v. Love, 599 So. 2d 111 (Fla. 1992). The legislature had determined that without the privilege, the peer review process would not be honest and beneficial. Feldman v. Glucroft, 522 So. 2d 798 (Fla. 1988). These statutory privileges had the effect of preventing the discovery of otherwise relevant information in litigation. Holly v. Auld, 450 So. 2d 217 (Fla. 1984).

With the passage of what has become known as Amendment VII, public policy was flipped to the position that “disclosure of information [ ] will allow patients to better determine from whom they should seek health care, evaluate the quality and fitness of heath care providers currently rendering service to them, and allow them access to information gathered through the self-policing process during the discovery period of litigation… .” Florida Hospital Waterman, Inc. v. Buster, 932 So. 2d 344 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006). Under Amendment VII, a patient was given a right to access records of any adverse medical incident and any record made or received in the course of business. The language of the Amendment was interpreted broadly to confer upon any person who is receiving or has received medical care the right of access to any document pertaining to medical negligence, intentional misconduct, and any act of neglect of a facility or provider which caused or could have caused injury or death to a patient. Florida Hospital Waterman, Inc. v. Buster, 984 So. 2d 478 (Fla. 2008). There is no limitation on whether the adverse incident is the same or similar to the incident being litigated. Ampuero-Martinez v. Cedars Healthcare Group, 139 So. 3d 271 (Fla. 2014). Many asked if there was any confidential evaluation that a hospital could perform.

Soon after Amendment VII was enacted, some hospitals began attempting to build confidentiality through the involvement of an attorney in the review of an adverse incident. Courts have since determined that Amendment VII does not vitiate the opinion work-product privilege, but it does supersede the fact work-product privilege. Fla. Eye Clinic, P.A. v. Gmach, 14 So. 3d 1044 (Fla. 5th DCA 2009). Because of this distinction, it is not enough for a hospital’s attorney to simply be present during an adverse incident review. Conferring privilege through work-product requires the attorney to inject her mental impressions, conclusions, opinions and theories. Even opinions communicated by the hospital’s employees to the attorney are not protected from Amendment VII. Acevedo v. Doctors Hosp. Inc., 68 So. 3d 949 (Fla. 3d DCA 2011).

Another avenue for obtaining confidential evaluation of an adverse incident is an external medical review. The application of Amendment VII to external medical reviews for purposes of litigation was recently reviewed, and the Second District held that external medical reviews maintain confidentiality. Bartow HMA, LLC v. Edwards, 175 So. 3d 820 (Fla. 2d DCA 2015). The court determined that an external medical review done for litigation was not a record “[m]ade or received in the course of business,” nor was it a record pertaining to an adverse incident because it was not a functional equivalent of a facility’s internal peer review. However, the external review cannot be used as a vehicle to outsource the internal peer review, as the court noted that their decision would have been different if there was no internal peer review of the incident.

Also important is that the Second District has clarified that documents pertaining to adverse medical incidents in general, but not related to a specific adverse medical incident, are not covered under Amendment VII. Bartow HMA, LLC v. Kirkland, 171 So. 3d 783 (Fla. 2d DCA 2015). For example, the court specified that general policies regarding handling of patient cases, reports from departments that do not reference adverse incidents, credentialing committee reports, committee minutes regarding hiring and hospital development plans, and documents generally related to handling sentinel events are not covered under Amendment VII.

Arguably, the most valuable tool in keeping adverse incident reviews confidential is the use of a Patient Safety Evaluation System (PSE) pursuant to the federal Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act (PSQIA). In 2005, the federal PSQIA was signed into law, and it embraced policy opposite to that embodied by Amendment VII. It conferred confidentiality on a review to encourage providers to share information without fear of liability. The PSQIA provides for confidential review of medical errors when facilities opt to create a PSE that collects information and forwards it to a Patient Safety Organization (PSO) for evaluation and feedback. The PSO must also share information with the Network of Patient Safety Databases. The First District Court recently held that documents put into the PSE for reporting to a PSO are confidential, preempting Amendment VII. Southern Baptist Hosp. of Fla., Inc. v. Charles, 178 So. 3d 102 (Fla. 1st DCA 2015). The First District held that this confidentiality also applies if the document serves the dual function of satisfying a state reporting requirement—such as incident reports required under § 395.0197.

In conclusion, while there are limited avenues for a hospital to keep their review of adverse incidents confidential, a hospital does have the ability to maintain some level of confidentiality through use of the tools outlined above. It is vital to know what information remains protected and what information is not covered by Amendment VII so that plaintiff’s counsel is not provided unnecessary ammunition in litigation.

*Dave is an associate in our Orlando, Florida office who can be reached at 407.505.4675 or drbear@mdwcg.com.

 

Defense Digest, Vol. 22, No. 2, June 2016

Defense Digest is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. ATTORNEY ADVERTISING pursuant to New York RPC 7.1. © 2016 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm. For reprints, contact tamontemuro@mdwcg.com.

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