Community addressing hospital turmoil with open forum on peer review concerns

Posted Oct. 20, 2008, at 7:24 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6 a.m.

MACHIAS — A local committee that says it’s trying to put the “community” back in Down East Community Hospital has invited a nationally recognized expert to speak about the practice and potential pitfalls of doctor peer review.

Dr. Lawrence R. Huntoon, a New York neurologist, will hold an informational session to discuss peer review, a phenomenon some feel is alienating competent physicians in Washington County.

The forum will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 23, at Elm Street School in East Machias and is open to the public.

Huntoon was invited by the Committee to Save Our Hospital, a local group that formed in response to growing discord in recent months among staff at the hospital. Some physicians feel they have been victimized by a poor peer review process that pits doctors who side with the administration against those who do not.

One of those physicians, Dr. James Whalen, filed a lawsuit against the hospital, claiming his hospital privileges were revoked unjustly. At a hearing in August, a judge approved a temporary restraining order that overturned the hospital’s decision. A final decision has not been issued, but Whalen called the initial ruling “landmark.”

“It basically said that the hospital was so poorly run that a court had to intervene,” he told the Bangor Daily News last month.

Another doctor, Lowell Gerber, was fired about 10 months after he was brought in to lead DECH’s cardiology department. Gerber believes he was targeted for dismissal because he challenged the administration with new ideas. Like Whalen, he’s exploring legal options.

Several other physicians have resigned amid internal turmoil as well. One of them, Dr. Myo Naing, started a page on the social networking Web site Facebook that promotes discussion about issues at DECH.

Wayne Dodwell, DECH’s CEO, said turnover at hospitals is common, and added that peer review is a legitimate way for doctors to direct concerns and criticisms to other doctors. Similarly, Dr. David Rioux, head of the hospital medical staff, and Walter Plaut, chairman of the DECH board of trustees, have downplayed any problems.

Late last month, the hospital announced that a recent examination of anonymous complaints to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services involving DECH revealed no apparent deficiencies in hospital procedure.

Earlier in September, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted an on-site investigation related to complaints but also found no deficiencies.

“What we’ve been doing is trying to get data out to people about the quality of our care here,” hospital spokeswoman Robin Popp said recently. The hospital has held a number of small focus groups to discuss hospital practices such as peer review, she said.

While the staff turmoil doesn’t appear to have resulted in a decrease in care quality, now more than ever, Greater Machias is paying attention.

“My opinion, and I’ve given this advice to hospital officials, is that it’s incumbent upon them to take public concern very seriously,” said Sen. Kevin Raye, who represents Washington County. “It’s impossible to overstate the importance of a hospital in its given community.”

The Committee to Save Our Hospital has held two vigils — one in August, one last month — to highlight problems at the hospital. Both drew large crowds, and committee member Annie Dickinson said she hopes Thursday’s forum is similarly well-attended.

“We want to provide as much information to the public as possible and foster a healthy discussion,” she said.

Dickinson said the committee has extended invitations to many principals and officers of Down East Community Hospital. Popp said she did not know whether any would attend.

erussell@bangordailynews.net

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