Saturday, May 5, 2007

Cornfeld v. State Board of Physicians (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Filed May 2, 2007--Opinion by Judge Sally Adkins.

The State Board of Physicians ("Board") found Cornfeld (1) violated the standard of care in his treatment of a surgical patient by leaving her under anesthesia and unattended in the operating room, and (2) engaged in unprofessional conduct in the practice of medicine by misrepresenting to both a hospital peer review investigator and the Board that improper settings on the surgical instrument he used were not made to his specifications. The Board suspended Cornfeld's license to practice medicine until he satisfied certain conditions and imposed a three year probationary period thereafter. The Circuit Court for Baltimore City affirmed the Board's order. Cornfeld appeals, raising five issues for review:
  1. Did the Board err in concluding that Dr. Cornfeld engaged in unprofessional conduct "in the practice of medicine" by making misrepresentations during hospital peer review and Board investigations?
  2. Did the Board violate section 14-401(i) of the Medical Practice Act by failing to complete its investigation within 18 months, or to explain its delay, requiring dismissal of the complaint against Cornfeld?
  3. Is the Board's conclusion that Dr. Cornfeld violated the standard of care by leaving an anesthetized patient unattended in the operating room supported by substantial evidence?
  4. Is the sanction imposed by the Board "so disproportionate as to constitute arbitrary and capricious agency action?
  5. Did the administrative law judge abuse her discretion by excluding certain evidence offered by Dr. Cornfeld?

The Court held that Dr. Cornfeld's false statements to hospital peer reviewers and Board investigators constituted "professional misconduct in the practice of medicine." Finding substantial evidence to support the Board's decision, no abuse of discretion, and no error of law, the judgment was affirmed.

The Medical Practice Act ("Act") identifies 40 specific bases for disciplinary action, two of which explicitly pertain to conduct committed "in the practice of medicine." Section 14-404(a)(3) permits the board to disclipline a licensee who is guilty of immoral or unprofessional conduct in the practice of medicine. Section 14-404(a)(11) authorizes discipline of a physician who "wilfully makes or files a false report or record in the practice of medicine." In addition, Section 14-404(a)(22) allows disciplinary action against a licensee who "fails to meet appropriate standards as determined by appropriate peer review for the delivery of quality medical and surgical care performed in a hospital."

Prior to a gynecological procedure in October 1999, Cornfeld instructed the overseeing nurse ("Dickey") to change the settings of the surgical machine ("Bovie") to his preferred settings indicated on a card he had on file. During the procedure, he burned the patient twice and repaired the lacerations with two large Vicryl stitches. Proper notifications of the incident by Dickey ultimately led to another surgeon's ("Vincent") review and correction of Cornfeld's stitching. Upon Dickey's notification to Cornfeld that another surgeon would be conducting such review and that the patient was to remain unconscious until the review, Cornfeld replied "Do what you need to do," and then left the operating room. No other surgeon was in the operating room at that time, and it was at least two to three minutes before the reviewing surgeon arrived. MGH suspended Cornfeld's hospital privileges shortly thereafter.

In a subsequent statement through his attorney in February 2000 to the investigating Board and a peer review investigation in July 2000, Cornfeld made statements in direct opposition to the stated preference of the card he had on file and alleged Dickey was negligent. The Board filed charges against Cornfeld in November 2003, alleging both violations of the standard of care and unprofessional conduct in the practice of medicine. After an evidentiary hearing, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") initially found Cornfeld breached the standards of care applicable to the charges. However, after hearing and exceptions, the Board concluded that "the clear and convincing evidence demonstrates only that Dr. Cornfeld left an anesthetized patient unattended in the operating room and thus violated Section 14-404(a)(22)."

The Board's separate charge of unprofessional conduct was based on Cornfeld's statements regarding his instructions for the Bovie machine settings. The ALJ concluded that the misrepresentations Cornfeld made about the settings were made during the hospital peer review and Board investigation and, therefore, did not fall within the "practice of medicine." The Board sustained the State's exception to that conclusion and, in support, cited its own precedents that making a false application or submitting a false testimony for a Board proceeding are "clearly within the practice of medicine."

The Board sanctioned Cornfeld by revoking his license until he satisfied certain enumerated conditions and, once the suspension was lifted, continued Cornfeld on probation for three years, during which his practice would be subject to "Board review and peer review" at the Board's discretion.

The standards governing judicial review of the Board's decision are limited to determining whether there was substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the agency's findings and conclusions, and to determining whether the decision was premised upon an erroneous conclusion of law. In applying the substantial evidence test, a reviewing court decides whether a reasoning mind reasonably could have reached the factual conclusion the agency reached; should defer to the agency's fact-finding and drawing of inferences if they are supported by the record; must review the agency's decision in the light most favorable to it; the agency's decision is prima facie correct and presumed valid; and it is the agency's province to resolve conflicting evidence and to draw inferences from that evidence.

Unprofessional Conduct in the Practice of Medicine: The practice of medicine is statutorily defined as

  1. to engage, with or without compensation, in medical (i) diagnosis, (ii) healing, (iii) treatment, or (iv) surgery;

  2. "practice medicine" includes doing, undertaking, professing to do, and attempting any of the following: diagnosing, healing, treating, preventing, prescribing for, or removing any phsyical, mental or emotional ailment or supposed ailment of an individual:

  • by physical, mental, emotional or other process that is exercised or invoked by the practitioner, the patient, or both, or
  • by appliance, test, drug, operation, or treatment.

Cornfeld contends that his misconduct did not occur in the practice of medicine because it took place in the context of judicial proceedings and was unrelated to the manner in which he treated a patient such that it was directly tied to the effective delivery of patient care. The Court reasoned that this case involved misconduct that occurred during proceedings that arguably adjudicated the medical propriety of Cornfeld's care. However, the Court did not agree that the definition of the pratice of medicine was so narrowly defined so as to exclude professional misconduct during hospital peer reviews and Board disciplinary proceedings. The issue of whether a treating physician's dishonesty in a peer review or state discplinary proceeding falls within the "practice of medicine" is one of first impression, and the Court was persuaded that Cornfeld made the false statements in order to influence decisions concerning the quality of his medical care to a patient and his fitness to practice medicine at MGH specifically, and in Maryland generally. Further, Cornfeld's false statements concerned his instructions for settings on a surgical instrument he used to operate, a matter that required his medical judgment in a specific surgical procedure. These misrepresentations were made to persons responsible for evaluating Cornfeld's medical care to patients. Held: Such misrepresentations were directly tied to medical treatment and surgery within the statutory definition of "practice medicine."

Delay in Board Investigation: The relevant section, 14-404(j)(2), states "If the Board is unable to complete the disposition of a complaint within 1 year, the Board shall include in the record of that complaint a detailed explanation of the reason for the delay."

Although the investigation was opened in January 2000, charges were not issued for more than three years. Cornfeld contends that, despite repeatedly raising the issue of untimeliness of the investigation, the Board failed to comply with either the statutory time frame or the statutory requirement that any extension beyond one year will be explained in detail on the record and posits the proper remedy is dismissal of the charges for failure to comply with the statute. The Court found that the legislature's failure to include a penalty for failure to act within a prescribed time indicates the provision is directory rather than mandatory. In accordance with HO § 14-405(g), "hearing of charges may not be . . . challegend by any procedural defects alleged to have occurred prior to the filing of charges" including complaints that the Board failed to comply with Section 14-404(j).

Violation of Standard of Care: The Court held the cited evidence provided a substantial factual basis for the Board's finding that Cornfeld violated the applicable standard of care in leaving an anesthetized patient.

Sanctions: The Board has statutory authority to "place any license on probation or suspend . . . a license" for violations of the Act. The Court could not find that suspension and long term probation for the breach of the standard of care in this case was so extreme and egregious as to warrant judicial intervention.

Evidentiary Rulings: The Administrative Procedure Act protects a party's right to call witnesses, offer evidence (including rebuttal evidence), cross-examine any witness, and present summation and argument. An ALJ may exclude evidence that is incompetent, irrelevant, immaterial or unduly repetitious, Cornfeld contends the ALJ went too far when she denied him his right to pursue any theories of the case. After reviewing the relevant portions of the record in support of Cornfeld's complaints, the Court did not find that Cornfeld was denied his rights to defend himself.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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