Valley Children’s Hospital is suing lung doctors for allegedly trying to steal patients and take them to University Pediatric Specialists, a rival medical group.
According to the lawsuit filed by Valley Children’s Hospital and its affiliated Valley Children’s Specialty Medical Group, Dr. John Moua and Dr. David Lee wrongfully and without permission accessed cystic fibrosis patient records from the hospital’s and specialty medical group’s computers in late August “for personal financial gain and commercial advantage.”
Hospital and doctor fights over patients are not new in Fresno. Saint Agnes Medical Center has been in a legal battle over alleged unfair competition with Santé Community Physicians, the largest doctors group in the area.
Likewise, the Valley Children’s lawsuit against the lung doctors also alleges unfair competition.
Besides Moua and Lee, the lawsuit names Dr. Paul Do and two medical groups – University Pediatric Specialists and Central California Faculty Medical Group. The three doctors belong to University Pediatric Specialists, a wholly owned subsidiary of the faculty medical group. The doctors are faculty members at UCSF-Fresno.
Valley Children’s alleges in the lawsuit that Moua left his Valley Children’s practice in August, telling the hospital he had been offered more money and a three-year guarantee at Community Regional Medical Center. Do had applied to practice at Valley Children’s in April, the lawsuit says. Instead, he told the hospital in August that he had been offered more money by Community Regional and took a job at University Pediatric Specialists, the lawsuit says.
Valley Children’s and Community Regional are in a high-stakes competition for pediatric patients in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Last month, Community Regional announced it was joining with the University of California at San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospitals to expand specialty services for children in Fresno. A Benioff official said then that UCSF and Community had recruited a pediatric cardiologist, three pulmonary pediatric specialists and a gastroenterologist. The goal was to have 10 to 15 pediatric specialists – to start with – in Fresno, he said.
According to University Pediatric Specialists’ website, the group opened its doors on Sept. 3. The website says the practice is accepting patients with asthma, cystic fibrosis, chronic lung disease and gastroenterology problems, among others.
Valley Children’s, in the complaint filed Sept. 22 in Fresno County Superior Court, alleges that Do and Moua were “seeking to misappropriate patients” and their patient health information and confidential information from the hospital and Valley Children’s Specialty Medical Group.
The doctors did not return calls, but Central California Faculty Medical Group released an email statement saying that the doctors did nothing wrong.
But Valley Children’s sees the doctors’ actions otherwise. “There was a significant data breach,” Michael Goldring, Valley Children’s interim chief legal officer and administrative officer, said Tuesday.
Records of at least 164 patients were accessed by the doctors, Goldring said, but he would not say how many patients had requested their medical files be transferred to University Pediatric Specialists.
The hospital believes “there was a HIPAA (patient privacy) breach that occurred,” he said. And it was obligated to report the breach to the California Department of Public Health and to the federal Office of Civil Rights, Goldring said. A report has been made to the state agency and the hospital is in the process of making a report to the federal office, he said.
According to the lawsuit, the three pulmonary doctors had Spanish-language interpreters contact families of some cystic fibrosis patients to make false and misleading statements about Valley Children’s cystic fibrosis center.
The families were falsely told that the center is understaffed, closed or closing, only one doctor was available, high quality care was no longer provided, grant money will not be available, staff and doctors had left and were working at University Pediatric Specialists, and patients needed to get their records and move to the new group, the lawsuit says.
The faculty medical group, however, said contacting patients to let them know of a physician’s new practice and location is a doctor’s right. “The physician-patient relationship exists between the patient and the physician, not the patient and the facility,” it said in its statement.
Valley Children’s says in the lawsuit that its reputation has been harmed. Its cystic fibrosis center remains staffed and fully operational and continues to provide quality care, the lawsuit says. On the other hand, “the defendants and Community Regional Medical Center, where they practice pulmonology,” does not have an approved and funded cystic fibrosis facility, it says.
Goldring said more than 300 pediatric specialists are associated with the hospital, and more are being recruited. He is aware of only two specialists who have been recruited away from the hospital, he said.
“We are taking care of our patients,” he said. “We are certainly adequately staffed.”
Central California Faculty Medical Group said the pulmonary doctors named in the lawsuit recently formed University Pediatric Specialists in order to provide better care and access to patients in the metropolitan Fresno area – including some of the doctors’ patients. “For this, the physicians deserve respect. They don’t deserve the Children’s Hospital lawsuit with its general, meritless accusations,” the statement said.
The faculty group and University Pediatric Specialists are “dedicated to providing high-quality care to all patients,” the statement continued. “This partnership provides greater access to care for the smallest members of our community. Our pediatric physicians are dedicated to treating their patients and any pediatric patients that need care.”
The lawsuit seeks exemplary and punitive damages of an unspecified amount, including for the misappropriation of trade secrets, unfair competition, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, defamation and breach of contract.