TACOMA, Wash. — A Madigan Army Medical Center psychiatrist has been suspended from his hospital duties because he allegedly practiced outside the scope of his clinical privileges and did not properly document patient records.
Dr. Russel Hicks, a senior member of Madigan’s staff with 15 years of service, received a Jan. 17 memorandum that informed him his privileges were in “abeyance.”
During an initial investigation that could last a month or more, he must refrain from any diagnosis, prescriptions, charting or treatment.
Hicks, in a letter to Madigan’s credential’s committee, said he believes the actions were in retaliation for information he offered Army investigators who last year examined diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the hospital.
Hicks has shared the documents detailing his suspension with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
“We are absolutely looking into this and will be making an inquiry with the Army,” said Matt McAlvanah, a spokesman for Murray.
The Jan. 17 memorandum sent to Hicks does not detail any specifics about the allegations against the doctor or how his conduct posed a risk to patients.
Hicks, in his response to the memorandum, says the suspension was the first time he was informed of any problems with his care, and that he was concerned his removal from practice could disrupt the care of some of his patients addicted to painkillers.
Madigan officials, citing federal privacy laws that protect employees, said they could not comment on the decision to temporarily remove Hicks from practice.
They said such actions arise from an effort to protect patients.
“Madigan command has an obligation to ensure patient safety and the delivery of the highest quality care to all our beneficiaries. Anytime a concern is raised about patient safety or the quality of care, we have an obligation to act,” said Col. Dallas Homas, Madigan’s commander.
Hicks’ suspension is the latest development in a turbulent 12-month period for Madigan behavioral-health staff members, who treat soldiers who return from war with PTSD and other mental-health problems. Last year, the Army launched investigations into how Madigan staff screen PTSD patients under consideration for medical retirement. During that investigation, two doctors were temporarily barred from clinical duties.
The diagnosis of PTSD has become a critical issue in the military in the aftermath of a 2008 change in law that mandated soldiers unable to serve due to the disability be qualified for medical retirement with pension and other benefits.
Madigan set up a team of forensic psychiatrists to screen patients under consideration for such retirements and ferret out soldiers who might be malingering. The team reversed more than 300 PTSD diagnoses.
But the forensic screening team was suspended and then permanently curtailed last year. Many patients underwent re-evaluations that reinstated PTSD diagnoses.
Hicks is a retired Army colonel and a former psychiatry department chairman. He headed up an intensive outpatient treatment program for PTSD. The circumstances of the program’s 2010 closure were part of last year’s Army investigations.
Madigan’s handing of patients under consideration for medical retirement last year was the subject of several Army investigations.
During a hearing last February, then-Rep. Norm Dicks, of Bremerton, expressed concerns that the treatment program ran into trouble when its staff diagnosed too many patients with PTSD. Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the Army surgeon general, said that program did not go away, but was merged with other treatment efforts.
“Having said that ... we are going to investigate to make sure that’s actually true, and that we’re providing the best possible care to our service members,” Horoho said.
Hicks, in correspondence forwarded to Murray, said he provided information to investigators about the closure of the outpatient program, and Madigan’s forensic psychiatry unit.
After the PTSD program closed in 2010, Hicks took on a new role treating patients, some of them high-risk, who have alcohol and drug problems. His caseload included the treatment of 30 patients on Suboxone, a drug used to help patients break free of opioid dependences.