Lawsuit challenging protected medical error data dismissed by state appeals court

Judges said an administrative investigation is not grounds for releasing health information created under a patient safety law.

By Alicia Gallegos — Posted June 15, 2012

Print  |   Email  |   Respond  |   Reprints  |   Like Facebook  |   Share Twitter  |   Tweet Linkedin

The Illinois Appellate Court has thrown out a lawsuit brought by the state that challenged the confidentiality of quality control error reports. Doctors were concerned that a ruling for the state would have weakened federal law and made it easier to expose protected health information.

“Illinois physicians are extremely pleased the appellate court affirmed confidentiality in the peer review process,” said William N. Werner, MD, president of Illinois State Medical Society. The medical society, along with the Litigation Center of the American Medical Association and the State Medical Societies, joined a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Walgreens, the defendant in the case. “This decision marks an important step in fostering secure patient safety organization information-sharing processes.”

The case started with an investigation by the Illinois Dept. of Financial and Professional Regulation into alleged medication negligence by three Walgreen Co. pharmacists. In 2010, the agency issued three subpoenas to Walgreens, requesting all incident reports of medication errors linked to the pharmacists. Walgreens refused to produce the reports. The company said the information was prepared as part of its patient safety evaluation system, which is privileged under federal law. The Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act, enacted in 2005, encourages pharmacies, hospitals and physicians to report medical error information to patient safety organizations, the details of which are shielded from public disclosure.

The department sued Walgreens to enforce the subpoenas. The state said the patient safety law does not block a state regulatory agency from seeking disclosure of medication error reports, and that not every incident report kept by Walgreens was privileged. A trial court ruled in favor of Walgreens. The state appealed.

In its May 29 opinion, the appellate court said the state had “ignored” Walgreens’ position that it kept no incident reports other than those collected for its error reporting program.

“The Patient Safety Act provides that ‘patient safety work product shall be privileged and shall not be subject to discovery in connection with a federal, state or local civil, criminal or administrative proceeding,’ ” the court said. Walgreens “established that the only documents responsive to petitioner’s subpoenas’ narrow scope of incident reports were [such] reports. Accordingly, [Walgreens] established that its reports were privileged pursuant to the Patient Safety Act” (link).

The court granted Walgreens’ motion to dismiss the suit.

At this article’s deadline, it was unclear whether the state planned to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. A spokeswoman for the Illinois Dept. of Financial and Professional Regulation said the department is reviewing the case and declined to comment further. A Walgreens spokesman declined to comment on the ruling.

The decision means physicians and others will be more open to reporting errors, thus improving quality of care, said Dr. Werner, of the Illinois State Medical Society.

“Confidentiality is crucial to voluntary PSO reporting,” he said. “If the PSO reports are subject to discovery, voluntary reports from physicians and other health professionals will dry up due to liability fears.”

Back to top


Case at a glance

Can protected medical error data be released during a state regulatory investigation?

The Illinois Appellate Court said no. Error information created under the Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act is privileged and cannot be exposed during any federal or state administrative proceeding, the court said.

Impact: The ruling protects the confidentiality of patient safety information gathered by doctors and other health professionals for purposes of error reporting.

The Illinois Dept. of Financial and Professional Regulation v. Walgreen Co., Illinois Appellate Court, May 29 (link)

Back to top



Read story

Confronting bias against obese patients

Medical educators are starting to raise awareness about how weight-related stigma can impair patient-physician communication and the treatment of obesity. Read story

Read story


American Medical News is ceasing publication after 55 years of serving physicians by keeping them informed of their rapidly changing profession. Read story

Read story

Policing medical practice employees after work

Doctors can try to regulate staff actions outside the office, but they must watch what they try to stamp out and how they do it. Read story

Read story

Diabetes prevention: Set on a course for lifestyle change

The YMCA's evidence-based program is helping prediabetic patients eat right, get active and lose weight. Read story

Read story

Medicaid's muddled preventive care picture

The health system reform law promises no-cost coverage of a lengthy list of screenings and other prevention services, but some beneficiaries still might miss out. Read story

Read story

How to get tax breaks for your medical practice

Federal, state and local governments offer doctors incentives because practices are recognized as economic engines. But physicians must know how and where to find them. Read story

Read story

Advance pay ACOs: A down payment on Medicare's future

Accountable care organizations that pay doctors up-front bring practice improvements, but it's unclear yet if program actuaries will see a return on investment. Read story

Read story

Physician liability: Your team, your legal risk

When health care team members drop the ball, it's often doctors who end up in court. How can physicians improve such care and avoid risks? Read story

  • Stay informed
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • RSS
  • LinkedIn