Until recently, the definition of a peer for peer review purpose was based on
the historical notion of a peer. A “jury of one’s peers” once meant a jury
composed of persons who personally knew both the defendant and the
community. These peers were assumed to be better able to determine the
truth of the case than persons who did not know the participants and their
history. The legal system gradually rejected the use of knowledgeable peers
because of the problem of bias. The courts shifted their concern with the
jurors’ knowing the facts of the case to a concern that the jurors would let their
prejudices for or against the defendant affect their ruling. Contemporary court
rules allow the exclusion of jurors who know the parties or any facts of the
case. Concern for bias is forcing peer review committees to make the same
move to the uninvolved peer.
Bias has always been an issue in peer review. Until the Congress passed the
Civil Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Acts, women and blacks
were routinely excluded from medical staffs. It would be naive to assume that
such forbidden criteria have been eliminated from all peer review decisions.
Physicians with unconventional practice styles or uncollegial personalities pose
a difficult problem of balance. Whereas it is unreasonable to expect every
physician to behave in the same way, unconventional practice styles or
personality problems may be evidence of substance abuse or psychological
impairment. Peer review activities should not be conducted by physicians with
outspoken biases against either the individual being reviewed or the aspects of
the individual’s practice that are being reviewed.
Peer review has always had an economic component. Hospital medical staffs
tried to balance the needs of the community with the economic interests of the
existing staff. Sometimes this meant preventing new physicians from starting
practice in the community, but as often it resulted in efforts to encourage
physicians in needed specialties to set up practice in the community. As
physicians and hospitals have been forced into competition, economic biases
have become a major confounding factor in peer review activities.
In most communities, physicians practicing the same specialty are either in
business together or are competitors. In large cities, physicians and hospitals
compete with their geographic neighbors. This competition is exacerbated by
the blurring of specialty lines. As the number of physicians in a community
increases, subspecialists often practice general medicine to supplement their
incomes. General medicine physicians and others cross specialty lines to offer
lucrative procedures such as liposuction. The act’s requirement that hearing
officers and panels must not be in “direct economic competition with the
physician involved” seems to preclude traditional peer review committees
composed of physicians in the same specialty or practice area who practice in
the same community as the physician under review.