Peer Review Protection Act Does Not Shield All Internal Hospital Documents
The Pennsylvania Peer Review Protection Act, 63 P.S. § 425.1 et seq., is a statute that, among other things, prohibits the proceedings and records of an internal review committee convened to evaluate the quality of care provided by a health care provider(s) from disclosure. In essence, the purpose of this portion of the Act is to allow health care organizations to perform honest, critical analysis of their health care providers, without fear that the contents of their review will become public or be used against them in a medical malpractice lawsuit.
The confidentiality provision of the Peer Review Protection Act is frequently used by hospitals, physicians, and health care organizations to prevent internal records from disclosure in malpractice litigation. In practice, this confidentiality provision is often employed more broadly than the statute permits, and is used to justify the withholding of internal records and documents that were not truly created as part of any internal peer review process.
In Vaccaro v. Scranton Quincy Hospital, a Lackawanna County medical malpractice case against an obstetrician and hospital concerning an alleged delay in performing a cesarean section delivery, the court considers the scope and limits of the Peer Review Protection Act. The defendant hospital had compiled the defendant obstetrician’s medical malpractice history when the doctor initially applied for privileges at the hospital. The hospital also had in its possession two letters regarding problems with the defendant obstetrician’s recordkeeping. Lawyers for the plaintiffs, Charles and Marissa Vaccaro, requested the production of all these documents during the discovery process. The defendant hospital, however, refused to turn the materials over, asserting that they were confidential pursuant to the Peer Review Protection Act. Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge Terrence R. Nealon ruled that these items are not protected by the Peer Review Protection Act and must be disclosed.
Judge Nealon reasoned that neither the defendant obstetrician’s malpractice history, nor the letters regarding the doctor’s recordkeeping deficiencies, was developed by or for any peer review process. The Judge explained that the purpose for which the materials were created is a critical factor. Only those records and documents that were actually developed by or for a peer review committee are entitled to confidentiality. Judge Nealon explained that records kept by the hospital in the normal course of business are not shielded from discovery simply because they are later shared with a peer review committee. The Court ordered the hospital to turn these materials over.
This is an important decision for patients injured due to medical malpractice and their families and loved ones. Doctors and hospitals frequently withhold relevant and vital information under the guise of peer review. The Vaccaro decision helps to clarify what truly is, and what is not, peer review material, and chips away at doctor and hospital defendants’ ability to prevent important information from disclosure in litigation.