The Heart Center of Northeast Georgia Medical Center suddenly lost 12 doctors on June 1, a loss hospital officials say was unexpected and unusual for the profession. But the cardiology group with 15 locations hopes to fill those positions soon and is calling on its remaining providers to fill the void.
The 12 cardiologists are leaving The Heart Center to start a new practice, the Northside Cardiovascular Institute with Northside Hospital in midtown Atlanta.
The Northeast Georgia Health System had been led to believe the cardiologists would be renewing their employment contracts set to expire May 31, according to Louis Smith, president of NGMC Gainesville.
“We were in this time frame of renewing the agreements, which the physician leadership had approved, and all assurances were, no issues with the agreement. They would be signed,” Smith said.
At the end of the day on Friday, May 31, some agreements were still outstanding, but NGHS administrators were still expecting them to be signed, he said.
“Out of the trust that we had with the group and the history that we had had, I just felt like those would be signed on Monday. Everything would be fine,” Smith said.
But at about midnight that evening, Smith said he received a call informing him that a doctor was refusing to come in for their shift at the Gainesville hospital because of an issue with the employment contract. Smith called the doctor and learned that they would not be signing the contract at all.
Then, a second call came in, this time from Braselton, where another doctor had reported they would not be coming in for their shift. Administrators were able to get the shifts covered by other cardiologists, Smith said. A third doctor called out the following morning.
It was not until about 4 p.m. Saturday, June 1, that NGHS learned why the doctors would not be returning—the cardiologists’ attorney sent a letter to NGHS attorneys informing them the doctors had taken other positions outside NGHS.
The health system still has questions about what caused the sudden departure, Smith said.
“I think that’s still the question that we’re trying to understand more about as well,” he said. “But the letter was just essentially only one paragraph that they would not be renewing their agreements, they had elected employment with another health system and that was it.”
Leaving a job without providing notice is unusual in the health care profession, Smith said.
“It is unusual not to have had a notice to reasonably work through for both parties and ensure that there’s no interruption of patient care. So, this one was unique in my experience,” he said.
NGHS’ relationship with Northside is limited to cardiologists at The Heart Center in Cumming admitting patients to Northside Hospital Forsyth, or a hospital taking a transfer patient from Northside, Smith said.
The Northside Cardiovascular Institute will be led by Dr. Jeffrey Marshall, previously chair of The Heart Center. A Northside spokeswoman said Marshall was unavailable for an interview and updates would be provided when available.
But Victor Dube, who had been going to The Heart Center in Gainesville, said he plans to go to Northside to keep his doctors.
“I’m glad they’re not going to California, because I couldn’t fly to California to see them. But I can go to (Northside),” Dube said. “As good as they are, it’s worth the travel.”
Dube said he holds no ill will against his doctors for transferring.
“It’s kind of like a baseball player. You get drafted. … They’re good doctors and they care about their patients, but it’s also an economy world,” Dube said.
But Elbert Durden, another patient, said he wants to stay in Gainesville and find a new local cardiologist.
“I’ll try to find somebody here that loves the community,” he said.
The doctors’ sudden announcement shows a modern disconnect between patients and providers, Durden said.
“I grew up in an important time when you had your team of doctors, and they wouldn’t have dreamed of going off and leaving their patients and their community,” he said. “The sense of community is gone.”
Smith said NGHS is working with patients who want to find another Heart Center cardiologist. The remaining 26 physicians and 42 advanced practice providers, which include nurse practitioners and physician assistants, are still seeing patients and are splitting up the increased workload.
“It depends on what patients need to see, what type of physician, so they’re really dividing them on subspecialties within cardiology and then working in teams within those specialties,” Smith said.
Smith said that The Heart Center typically has a waiting list of a few days but has not seen that change since the 12 doctors left.
The Heart Center was already taking applications for physicians, is hoping to fill open positions soon and even plans to expand beyond the original number of 38 cardiologists, Smith said.
“We had recruitment open anyway, just because of the growth of the center, so we have ramped that up a bit given what we need to recruit back in,” Smith said. “… We’ve already had multiple candidates on site that are eager to join The Heart Center, both in the region and other parts of the country that have heard about this.”
NGMC Braselton is temporarily not offering cardiac catheterizations. NGHS spokesman Sean Couch said first responders have been informed that they can take patients who have experienced STEMI, or ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction, a serious type of heart attack, to NGMC Gainesville. That was protocol before NGMC Braselton opened in 2015.
Dr. Ryan Whitney will begin practicing interventional cardiology on Monday, June 17. He joined The Heart Center in February and has been seeing patients in Braselton, Buford and Commerce, NGHS spokeswoman Beth Downs said Friday. He will be performing cardiac catheterizations in Gainesville. Whitney joins other interventional cardiologists Dr. Vivien Cheng, Dr. Nima Ghasemzadeh and Dr. Ankit Patel.
NGHS has uploaded answers to common questions about The Heart Center at heartngmc.org/news.
The 12 cardiologists who left The Heart Center are:
· Dr. Allison Dupont
· Dr. Brenda Hott
· Dr. Christopher Leach
· Dr. Mark Leimbach
· Dr. Jeff Marshall
· Dr. Mark Matthews
· Dr. Kashyap Patel
· Dr. Mehrdad Toosi
· Dr. Prad Tummala
· Dr. Steven Wang
· Dr. Heather Westmoreland
· Dr. Andrew Yen
According to a press release from Northside, the doctors will practice at the Northside Medical Midtown building at 1110 West Peachtree St. in Atlanta, but they may later go to other practices as well.
Northside Hospital will merge with Gwinnett Health System later this year. The combined system will have five hospitals in Sandy Springs, Lawrenceville, Cumming, Canton and Duluth.
Patients can call the Northside Cardiovascular Institute at 404-962-6000 if they have any questions.