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Basic Guidelines

The JCAH Accreditation Manual for Hospitals has established basic guidelines for medical staff selection and monitoring. As shown in the chapter on hospital liability, the responsibility for selecting and monitoring the medical staff rests with the governing body of the hospital. The governing body may delegate the actual process of review to a medical staff committee, but it cannot delegate its responsibility for the decisions that committee makes. The hospital will be liable for allowing an unqualified person to become a member of the medical staff if that person is improperly approved by the medical staff committee. The hospital governing body must ensure that the criteria used in evaluating staff members are sufficient and are followed. While the governing body may not be qualified to judge the professional competence of the potential staff member, it can verify the current status of the applicant's license and determine whether the letters of reference are authentic. These may seem to be simple matters, but they are often neglected, to the great legal detriment of the facility if an unlicensed or incompetent physician is admitted to the medical staff.

The application for staff membership should include:

* applicant's full name, date of birth, Social Security number, drivers license number, current address, and past addresses since a student or for five years

* name of applicant's medical school, its location, and the date of graduation

* names, positions, addresses, and phone numbers of references who will vouch for the applicant's professional competence and ethical character

* type and location of all postgraduate training

* board certifications or eligibilities

* all places of licensure, whether in force or not, and the identification numbers of the licenses

* all hospital privileges now in effect, those in effect within the past three years, and any facilities where privileges were terminated for disciplinary reasons

* all malpractice suits in which the applicant was or is a defendant, including the docket number of the suit, the place of filing, a brief statement of the allegations against the applicant, and the ultimate disposition of inactive suits

* any current of past challenges to medical or drug licenses

* a statement of the applicant's health

* any special qualifications or experience that are relevant to the applicant's professional competence

In addition to these items, the applicant should sign a release that will enable the investigating committee to check the validity of the information in the application. There are certain items that must be validated. These include medical school graduation, status of all medical licenses (whether currently in force or not), all disciplinary actions, and personal references. It is especially useful to contact reference by telephone, if care is taken to make a record of any information obtained and its source.

The most important aspect of the application is the history of past disciplinary actions and malpractice suits. Past successful disciplinary action, especially limitation or suspension of a state license, is assumed to be a strong indication of incompetent or unethical practice. The hospital may choose to grant privileges after weighing the offense and the applicant's subsequent behavior, but this is legally very different from granting privileges without exploring disciplinary proceedings. The committee reviewing the application must decide whether the application should be granted and must be able to defend that decision. If a questionable applicant is granted privileges, there should be a formal written statement detailing the investigation of the applicant and the factors relied upon in granting privileges.

The history of past malpractice suits is more difficult to interpret. The loss of a single suit should be reviewed, but this will not usually be a bar to obtaining privileges (unless it turned on intentional or unethical actions). A series of lost lawsuits is a strong indication of both negligence and poor patient relations. The decision is more difficult when there are pending lawsuits or a long string of suits that was settled or won by the defendant. From a legal point of view, a lawsuit won by the defendant should be treated as if it was unfounded. Practically, however, there are many areas of the country where it is almost impossible for a plaintiff to win a malpractice lawsuit. A physician who attracts litigation but prevail in court may become a threat in an area where plaintiffs' verdicts are more common. If several suits are involved or the charges involve unethical practice, pending litigation should also be reviewed. While civil litigation does not affect licensure in many states, its existence can be used to question the hospital's decision to extend staff privileges to an applicant.

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