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MUSC sues 6 doctors, Trident over plan to set up a rival cancer center

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The Medical University of South Carolina is suing six of its doctors and Trident Medical Center over allegations they conspired to share confidential information for the creation of a competing head and neck cancer facility. File/Provided

The Medical University of South Carolina is alleging that six of its cancer doctors have given confidential information to Trident Medical Center in a plan to defect to the competing hospital and help it create a rival treatment facility.

In a lawsuit filed Nov. 22, MUSC is asking a judge to issue a temporary injunction to stop what it called the "wholesale departure of physicians, nurses, technicians, staff and fellows" to Trident, which is owned by HCA Healthcare.

MUSC is seeking an injunction hearing on or before Dec. 1, which is the resignation date for the doctors who are leaving its head and neck oncology division.

Charleston-based MUSC "is concerned that another healthcare facility (and former MUSC employees) may seek to use MUSC's confidential and proprietary information" to duplicate treatment services at Trident's hospital in North Charleston, Patrick Cowley, CEO of MUSC Health said in an affidavit.

That would cause "irreparable harm" to MUSC, Raymond DuBois, dean of the medical university's College of Medicine, said in a separate affidavit.

MUSC alleged that without the help of its doctors, Trident "would not be able to quickly establish the facilities, processes and procedures to perform these complicated head and neck procedures" and that Trident "does not have adequate facilities ... to perform the types of complex surgeries historically performed" at MUSC.

Trident disagreed.

“Physicians frequently move their practice locations and affiliations," the health system said in a written statement late Tuesday. "Trident Medical Center is part of HCA Healthcare, which includes Sarah Cannon — a global leader in cancer care and research. We are well-positioned to care for head and neck patients and are excited these physicians have chosen to be part of the Trident team. This last-minute lawsuit appears to be an effort to keep patients away from their doctors.”

Among the numerous exhibits included with the complaint are emails sent on MUSC servers in which Trident Health officials and MUSC doctors discuss salaries, signing bonuses, employment agreements and how to structure their departures from the medical university.

"There is a complex extraction from our current employer, as there is a group of us leaving, that just started yesterday," Dr. Eric Lentsch, a head and neck oncologist with MUSC, said in a July 14 email.

In another email, a nurse asked MUSC's clinical operation manager to match the salary that Trident Medical had just offered her to become its head and neck coordinator.

MUSC alleged the doctors also sent emails to Trident Health officials discussing specific tools, supplies, equipment and room setups needed to establish a head and neck cancer treatment center. They also sent or attempted to send patient lists, case logs and confidential financial information about MUSC's cancer unit, according to the lawsuit.

In the six months leading up to their resignations, doctors in MUSC's cancer program took more than 1,000 hours of leave, and their productivity dropped by about 25 percent from the same period a year earlier, MUSC said in its lawsuit.

"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 is asking a judge for an order prohibiting its doctors and others from providing further confidential information to Trident, requiring all information that's already been sent to be returned and to prohibit Trident from using the information or contacting MUSC employees. No hearing date has been scheduled.

An injunction would be the first step in the lawsuit, which MUSC accuses the defecting doctors, Trident Medical and its HCA parent of civil conspiracy, breach of contract, interference with contractual relationships, violations of the state's Trade Secrets Act and Unfair Trade Practices Act and other allegations.

The doctors who are named as defendants in the complaint are Lentsch, Betsy K. Davis, Terry Day, Joshua Hornig, David Neskey and Anand Sharma. They could not be reached for comment Nov. 23.

A spokeswoman for MUSC said the system does not comment on pending litigation.

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