Two physicians with The Heart Center at Northeast Georgia Medical Center refused to show up for work at midnight last Friday, just days after they and 10 other doctors had indicated they were planning to sign new 10-year contracts to stay with the practice, the medical center’s president said Friday.
Instead, the 12 physicians left for Northside Hospital in Atlanta, where they are forming the Northside Cardiovascular Institute.
Louis Smith, the medical center’s president since 2015, said hospital administrators received a letter at 4 p.m. Saturday that said the physicians were not signing their new agreements and would not be returning to the hospital, effective immediately. The letter was sent by the group’s attorney, Joel Porter, who practices at Maynard Cooper in Birmingham.
“We were able to get backup coverage in place very quickly because of the depth of physician support and involvement we have with The Heart Center, so there was no issue with patient care or safety,” he said.
Smith said the way the physicians chose to leave the practice is an unusual one in the health care industry.
“The leadership (of The Heart Center) had re-enforced with me earlier last week that everything looked fine, the contracts were good and that everybody would be signing, although it might be the last hour of the last day,” Smith said. “But there were no concerns noted at that time.”
Efforts were made to reach Dr. Jeffrey Marshall, one of the physicians who will be heading up the practice at Northside, but a Northside spokeswoman said Marshall was not granting interviews at this time. Calls and emails to Porter were not immediately returned.
The decision by the doctors to leave reduced The Heart Center’s physician staff by a third, but Smith said the remaining 26 physicians and 41 advanced practice providers have been able to provide patients with uninterrupted access to doctors. He said current patients of The Heart Center will get calls about rescheduling with other doctors in the practice, and he suggested new doctors may join the practice soon.
“Losing that level of manpower does hit you to a degree,” Smith said, “but we do have the ability to fully cover. And we have had ongoing recruitment (of new doctors). We keep positions posted all of the time because of growth and success we have had here. We will have an announcement very shortly that will show additional physicians joining the practice to continue that tradition of care.”
The 12 physicians were part of a group of 20 doctors who practiced at Northeast Georgia Health System since about the mid 2000s. Smith said the hospital had worked closely with the group for a number of years, leading to a decision to bring the practice under the umbrella of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center as an affiliate group in 2014. Each of those physicians signed five-year contracts that expired on May 31. Eight physicians who stayed at the Heart Center have signed new deals.
Smith said conversations about extending the contracts began 19 months ago. Some social media posts have accused the medical center of requiring the physicians to sign 10-year contracts, claiming the physicians left because of that.
But Smith said the opposite is true. He said initial contract negotiations began with a five-year deal, the same as the original contract.
“The request from the leadership group of the physicians was we were willing to do a 10-year contract, given all the challenges for the health care industry and the unknowns of the future,” he said. “The question was were we willing to show that level of commitment and support to the Heart Center and our response was absolutely. We didn’t even blink.”
But at 11:50 p.m. last Friday, the hospital’s on-call administrator called Smith to tell him a physician was refusing to come in for his assigned call to cover cardiac emergencies at the hospital. Minutes later, Smith got another call that another heart doctor wasn’t coming to work, either.
“That seemed unusual to me,” he said. “That’s not typically how the physicians approach things from an operational standpoint. So I called that physician up and tried to understand what was happening.”
One of the physicians was already at the hospital but left when the new shift was supposed to start. The other simply never came in.
“I would tell you that in my 30-year career, while I’ve had situations and witnessed situations where there have been departures and you’ve gone through transitions, it is somewhat unusual the way they chose to go about this. That is unusual in our industry.”