NEWS- Probation lifted: UVA med center celebrates

The Bible orders, "Physician, heal thyself," and it seems UVA Medical Center has taken those words to heart and done just that.

After operating for six months under the pall of institutional probation, the Center has reason to celebrate: the probation has been lifted by the Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education, and the Medical Center once again enjoys full accreditation for its residency program, which educates hundreds of new doctors each year.

"We're very pleased about the Committee's decision," reports Susan Kirk, acting director of Graduate Education at UVA, who says by email that the news came on Friday, October 20, during a phone conversation with Patricia Surdyk, executive director of the Council's Institutional Review Committee.

"It was effective that day," says Kirk.

Surdyk could not be reached for comment, and Council spokesperson Julie Jacobs says the Council will not comment until an official letter is mailed sometime in the next few weeks.

Quality of patient care was never an issue in the probation, and the Medical Center holds a "gold seal of approval" from the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, the major hospital accrediting body. The Council probation concerned only the working conditions of residents, which allegedly included 100+hour work weeks.

That the Center was placed on probation at all, however, may have come as a shock to those who revere the hospital for its consistently high rankings in the U.S. News & World Report's Best Hospitals issue, and for its treatment of Superman, the late Christopher Reeve, following his 1995 riding accident in Culpeper. For seven years, UVA has celebrated its ranking as a "Top 100 Hospital" on a banner hanging on the pedestrian bridge over JPA. 

But in the Hook's July 20 cover story, "PR Emergency: UVA Med Center struggles with probation,"other people, including several senior physicians, said the probation was simply an outward sign of significant problems in the management of the Center.

One senior surgeon described a "horrendous" morale problem among staff, and another physician claimed that probation could mean "Armageddon" for the hospital, since top residents might not be attracted to an institution on probation, and top doctors might look for work elsewhere.

Reached after the probation was lifted, one physician, who also requests anonymity, says the news is "an enormous sense of relief."

"It's good news for the hospital," says Jan Cornell, head of the Staff Union of UVA, "but morale is still low," something she attributes to employees being overworked and undersupported by the administration.

Medical Center CEO Ed Howell, hired in 2001, did not return the Hook's call. But he denied in July that his administration is unresponsive or unfeeling.

"I don't try to be intimidating," he said. What he has tried to do, he explained, is to create an environment in which staff are free to approach the administration. After the probation was evident, he said he scheduled a series of open meetings.

Among the problems Howell said the hospital would be addressing were enforcing resident work hours limits to 80 per week, averaged over four weeks, as required by the Council; improving security on call room doors, where residents sleep while on shift breaks; and improving and expanding the office of Graduate Medical Education to include, among other things, a fitness center.

One other issue Howell mentioned: keeping paperwork up to date.

While Kirk declines to comment specifically on what factors led to the positive reassessment, she does say the Center tackled any criticism the Council had identified, and she thanks employees of the Center for working to effect the changes.

"They are a terrific bunch of hard working professionals," she says, "and the university is fortunate to have such dedicated employees."

UVA Med Center off probation. The news is an "enormous sense of relief," says one physician.