A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeal of the State of California, Second Appellate District, ruled last week that the Medical Board of California’s (the Board) interest in reviewing the quality of care provided by a physician under Board investigation outweighed potential privacy violations that disclosing patient medical records subpoenaed by the Board may raise. In short, the court neglected to quash the Board’s subpoena and required the physician to disclose the requested medical records to the Board.

The appellate ruling arose from a Board subpoena requesting certified copies of a patient’s medical records from Dr. John C. Chiu. Dr. Chiu is a neurosurgeon in California under Board investigation for alleged quality of care issues related to a patient identified as “T.S.” The Board originally reviewed uncertified copies of the records after an insurance company, involved in related litigation, sent copies of the records to the Board. The insurance company also filed a Board complaint against Dr. Chiu alleging that Dr. Chiu provided T.S. with an inadequate level of care. As part of its investigation, the Board subpoenaed Dr. Chiu for certified copies of T.S.’s medical records.

Ultimately, the court rejected Dr. Chiu’s Fourth Amendment arguments as “wholly inapplicable.” The court then stated that under the Board’s authority to license physicians and investigate physician wrongdoing, the subpoena was designed to meet the Board’s statutory objectives and that doing so was a compelling state interest that outweighed T.S.’s privacy rights.

This ruling is consistent with similar rulings in other courts and certain state health information privacy laws. In sum, physicians under investigation by or subject to a complaint filed with the applicable state licensing board should not expect to hide behind patient privacy statutes and regulations, even in instances when the underlying complaint is not filed by a patient