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Slap: University Fighting Access to Patient Safety Records on All Fronts

Slap: University Fighting Access to Patient Safety Records on All Fronts

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The University of Kentucky is in a battle with its own past.

Last year, the university lost in its attempt to block access to hospital safety records. The Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled that the school and its physicians could not make a blanket claim that anything related to a patient death or medical mistake was shielded from public view by federal law.

In both cases, the law in question is the federal Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act of 2005 (PSQIA). In theory, the law is supposed to encourage health professionals to report medical mistakes and other safety information to patient safety organizations by keeping the reports themselves off limits to reporters, litigants or anyone else. But the University of Kentucky and other hospital systems have been trying to use the law to cover just about anything that goes on inside the hospital walls. Records that were once public information are now being declared “protected” under PSQIA.

The family of Luvetta Goff found out exactly how secretive the University of Kentucky had become when it sued physicians working for University of Kentucky HealthCare in Lexington. Goff had died of surgical complications, according to court records. In its case, Tibbs v. Bunnell et al., attorneys for Goff’s family requested reports related to Goff’s death. The doctors claimed protection under PSQIA. When the court ruled for Goff’s family, the University of Kentucky appealed. Alicia Gallegos at American Medical News wrote:

In an August opinion, the Kentucky Court of Appeals said that only self-examining analysis by the medical professional in question is protected. Other reports must be disclosed, the court said. The defendants appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court. … The Kentucky Supreme Court’s ruling will be the first interpretation of the Patient Safety Act by a state supreme court, said Michael Callahan, a Chicago attorney and vice chair of the Medical Staff Credentialing and Peer Review Practice Group for the American Health Lawyers Assn.

To understand the stakes here, consider that the Kentucky Medical Association, the American Medical Association and the State Medical Societies all filed a brief with the Kentucky Supreme Court arguing that the court should keep the records secret. They’ve also been quite successful on the public relations front. Headlines about the case made it sound like patient safety was threatened by the ruling.

While the state’s Supreme Court is considering the Goff case, the University of Kentucky is now locked in another legal battle over records related to its pediatric cardiothoracic surgery unit. It has appealed a state attorney general decision that the records should be released to WUKY reporter Brenna Angel, who has since left that job.

This battle is for much more than the ability to keep surgery records secret. The decisions made in these cases challenge the very heart of public records and free speech precedents in state and federal courts, and they could help define how courts interpret the still mostly untested federal PSQIA.

Stay tuned. I’ll write more about the cases in the weeks to come. If you have your own thoughts on the relative merits of keeping patient safety information secret, send me a note at or on Twitter @wheisel.

Image by Steve Boneham via Flickr

Here are more of Heisel's posts on the University of Kentucky court case:

Slap: University of Kentucky Sues Its Own Public Radio Reporter

Slap: University of Kentucky Has Threatened A Reporter Before

Slap: University Says It Sued Reporter to Protect Patients

Slap: Kentucky Court Case Could Slam Door on Patient Safety Information

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