Please don't go after all, Atrium tells doctors looking to leave

Please don't go after all, Atrium tells doctors looking to leave
Atrium Health's flagship hospital in Dilworth. In an internal email Wednesday, an Atrium executive appealed to doctors in its Mecklenburg Medical Group practice to not leave the system. (Robert Lahser | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Deon Roberts/The Charlotte Observer) - Atrium Health has told a group of doctors wanting to break away from the hospital system that it doesn't want to see them go after all.

In an internal email Wednesday obtained by the Observer, an Atrium executive appealed to doctors in Atrium's Mecklenburg Medical Group practice, more than a week after 92 of the physicians sued the system in an effort to operate independently.

"Your colleagues want to have a conversation with you — to listen to you, to discuss the future of primary care in this community, and to share with you the hope that you will continue your practice within Atrium Health Medical Group," says the email from Scott Rissmiller, deputy chief physician executive for Atrium.

"With physician leadership we've made substantial progress, together, over the past year care to best serve the patient — and we want you to continue to be a part of that progress," Rissmiller wrote. "Together, we are stronger and better able to tackle the challenges before us and to continue to improve the health of our community."

On April 2, the doctors with the 104-physician practice filed suit in Mecklenburg County Superior Court against Charlotte-based Atrium in a move to free themselves of non-compete restrictions so they could practice independently.

The doctors complained in the suit of monopolistic and anti-competitive behavior by Atrium, including that doctors are ordered in most instances to refer patients only to Atrium facilities.

Atrium announced the same day the suit was filed it will grant the doctors' request to break away, and since then has reiterated that commitment.

In a statement Wednesday, Atrium described the email as Rissmiller reassuring the doctors that it was OK to have open conversations with their colleagues.

"We hope these physicians will reconsider leaving and continue to care for our patients and communities along with the 1,900 other physicians at Atrium Health," Atrium said.

For Atrium, formerly known as Carolinas HealthCare System, the effort to split from the system is an unusual development. It's been far more typical over the years for physician practices to be acquired by Atrium, a situation in which the doctors become employees of the system.

Despite Atrium's comments that it will grant the doctor's request, it's still unclear when the doctors and the system will officially separate.

That's because Atrium has said it continues to determine how to address the non-compete restrictions in the doctors' employment agreements.

But the doctors, who plan to operate under the name Mecklenburg Multispecialty Group, have grown frustrated with Atrium's pace, expressing in a public statement Monday that they're still waiting for specifics from the system.

"To date we've heard nothing of any substance," Dr. Dale Owen, a cardiologist leading the effort to operate independently, told the Observer Wednesday. "I think that until you prove that they were not genuine ... then I think we take them at their word."