Three prominent liver transplant doctors from outside Arizona spent Tuesday listening to testimony, much of it hostile, about the firing of a top surgeon at Tucson’s only academic medical center.
Within the next 10 days, the panel of physicians is expected to issue a public decision about whether University Physicians Healthcare (UPH) was justified in firing surgery head Dr. Rainer Gruessner in December. Gruessner wants UPH to make him a public apology and to retract a complaint they made against him to the Arizona Medical Board.
Both sides in the case agreed that the quality of care the German-born transplant surgeon gave to patients was never in question. And they also agreed that Gruessner and former UA College of Medicine Dean Dr. Steve Goldschmid did not get along.
But UPH officials and Gruessner saw eye to eye on little else during the nine-hour hearing, which was held at a UPH-owned building at 575 E. River Road.
Gruessner was suspended with pay in September after he was accused of being involved in amending a database of liver transplant records. UPH officials say his conduct during that time justifies his termination. He’s still being paid, though not his full $771,334 salary — he says he is receiving about one-third of that.
Gruessner says he’s been waiting since that time for due process, as he’s never had a chance to defend himself. He has spent $250,000 in legal fees trying to clear his name. He says he never altered records but that he asked for a database to be corrected.
UA Health Network CEO Dr. Michael Waldrum said Gruessner was a divisive force, a leader who did “what he wanted, when he wanted,” and made unilateral changes.
Waldrum testified that Gruessner recruited surgeons with promises that neither he nor the institution could keep, and that he was not collaborating enough.
Tuesday’s hearing, which came about as a result of a legal action Gruessner filed against UPH, was, “a travesty for our community, for our organization,” Waldrum said.
“We should not be here,” he said.
The UA Health Network is the parent organization for the hospital and for UPH, which staffs the hospital with physicians from the UA College of Medicine.
Gruessner’s lawyer Kraig Marton told the panel that UPH fired Gruessner out of malice because he’d spoken critically of Goldschmid, the medical school dean.
Goldschmid stepped down from the dean’s position in March and is now a vice president with the UA Health Network. He did not testify Tuesday. Gruessner’s attorneys say they asked for him to appear. UPH attorney Amy Gittler said there was no reason for Goldschmid to be in attendance.
Gruessner, who came to Tucson from the University of Minnesota in 2007, is credited with expanding and strengthening the UA department of surgery, and for successfully leading the team that treated then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and other victims of the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting.
The “bar was raised” by the surgery department and that was a threat to Goldschmid and others, Gruessner testified.
He testified that he wanted the database amended because, when he asked to see the records in September, he was shocked to find his name was not listed as the primary surgeon in many of the liver transplant surgeries he performed.
Gruessner said he asked to see the records because Goldschmid had told him in July 2013 he’d have to step down as chair of the surgery department. Though he was disappointed, Gruessner said he agreed.
He said he was prepared to go quietly and consider other job opportunities. Both of his children are students in the UA College of Medicine and he would never want to jeopardize their studies, he said.
But then he was accused of changing records and suspended. Goldschmid did not seem to want him to have a dignified exit, he said. Gruessner then became determined to clear his name and acrimony with his employers escalated. He said that a complaint was filed against him with the Arizona Medical Board alleging unethical behavior.
“I did not want to go to court and file a lawsuit,” he testified.
Gittler said Gruessner was looking at the transplant database because he was looking for another job, and that he changed it to make himself look better. Since his suspension he’s been disparaging the university and its physicians, she said.
“There was absolutely just cause to terminate Dr. Gruessner, and we ask that you uphold the termination from UPH,” Gittler said.
Marton said his client did nothing wrong, that he doesn’t deserve a “professional death sentence,” and he asked members of the independent panel to clear his name.
Doctors on the independent panel hearing Gruessner’s case were Dr. John Fung of the Cleveland Clinic;, Dr. Stuart Knechtle of Emory University and Dr. Sandy Florman of Mt. Sinai Hospital. Randy Yavitz, a Phoenix lawyer, oversaw the hearing, which was open to the public.
The panel’s recommendations about Gruessner will go to the board of directors of UPH, which has final say. That board’s members are Dr. Carlos Borras, Dr. Mindy Fain, Jean Fedigan, Dr. Michael Lemole, Steve Lynn, Karen Mlawsky, Barbara Peck, Dr. David Sheinbein and Waldrum.