The Medical University of South Carolina sued six of its own doctors Monday, alleging the physicians hatched a plan to quit their jobs, go work for a rival hospital and then use proprietary information to help develop a competing cancer treatment facility.
In a lawsuit filed in Charleston County’s court of common pleas, lawyers for MUSC asked a judge to issue a temporary injunction to stop what it describes as the “wholesale departure of physicians, nurses, technicians, staff and fellows” to Trident Medical Center.
The suit further claims the departing physicians not only sought to help North Charleston-based Trident establish a new specialized cancer practice, but also attempted to “cripple” MUSC’s head and neck department so that it could not compete with the new treatment center.
“The conduct of all defendants impacts the public interest and is immoral, unethical and oppressive,” lawyers for MUSC argued in the suit, claiming that their conduct had “the specific intent of completely eradicating MUSC” as a competitor and would result in leaving the public with “fewer choices in the area of head and neck cancer treatment.”
The lawsuit was filed against HCA Healthcare, a for-profit, Tennessee-based health system that owns owns Trident, along with MUSC doctors Terry A Day, Betsy Kay Davis, Joshua D. Hornig, Eric J. Lentsch, David M. Neskey and Anand K. Sharma.
In an emailed statement provided to The State newspaper, Trident Medical disputed the accusations.
“Physicians make independent decisions about their affiliations and frequently move their practice locations,” Trident spokesman Rod Whiting said. “These physicians decided that Trident Medical Center is the best hospital for them and their patients, and a last-minute lawsuit should not keep cancer patients from getting the care they need.”
MUSC is seeking an injunction hearing on or before Dec. 1, which is also the resignation date for the six doctors who are leaving MUSC’s head and neck oncology division to go and work for Trident.
All of the doctors named in the suit are part of MUSC’s head and neck oncology division, which provides treatment for cancers located in the head and neck.
Trident denies claims, MUSC offers alleged receipts
In the lawsuit, MUCS claims Trident routinely transfers many critically ill patients to MUSC, the region’s only Level I trauma center, because Trident lacks the ability to provide the necessary specialized care and resources those patients need.
MUSC further alleges that without the help of its doctors and the confidential and proprietary information they unlawfully obtained, Trident “would not be able to quickly establish the facilities, processes and procedures to perform these complicated head and neck procedures.”
Attorneys for MUSC estimate it would take eight to 10 years for Trident to independently develop a process for these treatments and surgeries.
Trident said that’s not true.
“We are well-positioned to care for head and neck patients and are excited these physicians have chosen to be part of the Trident Medical Center team,” Whiting said.
Along with a 38-page complaint and 47-page motion for a temporary injunction, MUSC also submitted 368 pages of exhibits to the court.
The documents include copies of emails sent on MUSC servers in which Trident Health officials and MUSC doctors discuss salaries, employment agreements and how to handle their departures from the medical university.
Raymond DuBois, the dean of MUSC’s College of Medicine and the director of the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, said the school’s fellowship program in head and neck oncology is now “under attack” in an affidavit.
“In my entire career, I have never seen or heard of a group of physicians engage in a wholesale abandonment of their students, colleagues and patients similar to what the defendant physicians have orchestrated over the past several months,” DuBois said in his affidavit.
MUSC also said in its lawsuit that the doctors sent emails to Trident Health officials detailing specific tools and instruments, supplies, room setups, pharmaceuticals, and processes necessary for each type of procedure.
MUSC says this information, which is found in physician preference cards, are confidential and proprietary information that belongs to MUSC — not to any individual physician or employee.
The suit also claims Lentsch, one of the doctors, received an advance payment of $16,000 under the condition that if he left MUSC during the 2022 fiscal year, he would have to repay the money.
Despite singing a memo agreeing to those terms in July and announcing his notice on Nov. 30, which is part of the 2022 fiscal year, MUSC claims Lentsch deposited the $16,000 check and has no intention of paying them back.
In the six months leading up to their resignations, the six doctors in MUSC’s cancer program collectively took more than 1,000 hours of leave, and their productivity dropped by about 25% from the same period a year earlier, MUSC said in its lawsuit.
A hearing date has not yet been set.