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Fighting to get out of med school

For some, medical school and hospital residencies offer more than an education in caring for patients. They provide first-hand experience in the legal system.

After winning the intense competition to gain admission to med school, then finding a successful match with a residency program, a handful of prospective doctors inevitably become embroiled in disputes with their schools and hospitals. Some of those clashes end up involving lawyers and even land in court.

For example, a former resident at the University of Chicago Medical Center filed a discrimination complaint last month against the Hyde Park hospital, alleging she was wrongfully discharged from the program in part because she is a Colombian native. In June, Northwestern University won a case filed by a former second-year medical student who alleged she didn't receive due process when she was dismissed for academic reasons.Meanwhile, Dr. Selma Rashid, a Naperville physician, said she had to hire a lawyer to fight Advocate Lutheran General Hospital over an erroneous 2011 report about her work in the residency program at the Park Ridge institution.

While litigation has mushroomed at almost every level of the educational system, it is still relatively rare in medical training.

“Typically, a resident is going to be more apprehensive about bringing a claim because this is the start of their career, and they're worried about getting into another program,” said Kristen Prinz, principal at Prinz Law Firm P.C. in Chicago, who has represented residents in academic disciplinary hearings.

Despite the risks, medical students and residents have plenty of incentive to sue if their relationships with their schools or hospitals turn sour. Not only do they risk forfeiting the thousands of dollars they've already sunk into their educations, but they also face losing potentially lucrative careers as physicians.

A residency is a key part of a doctor's education, in which a medical school graduate works under the supervision of a physician, typically in a hospital or a clinic. Unlike med students, residents are employees, but they still don't have the options other employees might have, experts say.

Dr. Maria Artunduaga, a former U of C resident, alleges she was singled out for unequal treatment, then was forced out of the program, according to a complaint filed Oct. 31 in U.S. District Court in Chicago.

“These programs foster and tolerate a lot of bullying,” said Alejandro Caffarelli, her Chicago-based attorney.

Also named in the suit is the hospital's chief of plastic surgery, Dr. David Song, who made false statements about her to his colleagues, the complaint alleges.

A U of C spokesman denied the hospital discriminates against foreign-born residents, noting that the medical center has accepted residents from around the world. When Dr. Artunduaga's contract was not renewed, she filed a grievance that was heard by an independent panel of doctors and administrators, which upheld the decision, the spokesman said.

Earlier this year, former second-year medical student Anita Goyal unsuccessfully sued Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

In her complaint, Ms. Goyal says she was dismissed because of a “large number of examination failures,” but she alleges that there are no clear criteria specifying exam failures as grounds for dismissal. She passed each exam that she re-took, the complaint says.

“Students are dismissed only after very careful consideration by members of the faculty and the appropriate administrators,” a Northwestern spokesman said.

Last year, in a news release, the school highlighted Ms. Goyal's role as part of a group that provided volunteer sports medicine at a North Side high school.

Ms. Goyal's attorney declined to comment on the suit.

Dr. Rashid started her residency at Lutheran General, but after a dispute switched to Evanston Hospital. She completed that program in 2004.

Two years ago, when the internist applied for a Texas medical license, Lutheran General said she was required to participate in remediation, a formal process to address incompetence, she said.

After she protested, the hospital sent a second letter last year saying it was a mutual decision for her to leave and denying that she was given remediation.

A Lutheran General spokesman said the hospital had worked with Dr. Rashid “to attempt to clear up any misunderstanding.”

Some employment lawyers say that most disputes between residents and hospitals are resolved before a lawsuit is filed because residents, already burdened by student loans, don't have the money for litigation, nor do they want to acquire a reputation as a troublemaker.

“Residents will put up with a lot,” said Antoinette Choate, a Chicago lawyer and president of the Illinois chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association.
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