By the end of 2021, Anuj Peddada, MD, had hit a wall. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t concentrate, erupted in anger, and felt isolated personally and professionally. To temper pandemic-driven pressures, the Colorado radiation oncologist took an 8-week stress management and resiliency course, but the feelings kept creeping back.
Still, Dr. Peddada, in his own private practice, pushed through, working 60-hour weeks and carrying the workload of two physicians. It wasn’t until he caught himself making uncharacteristic medical errors, including radiation planning for the wrong site, that he knew he needed help – and possibly a temporary break from medicine.
There was just one hitch: He was closing his private practice to start a new in-house job with Centura Health, the Colorado Springs hospital he’d contracted with for over 20 years.
Given the long-standing relationship – Dr. Peddada’s image graced some of the company’s marketing billboards – he expected Centura would understand when, on his doctor’s recommendation, he requested a short-term medical leave that would delay his start date by 1 month.
Instead, Centura abruptly rescinded the employment offer, leaving Dr. Peddada jobless and with no recourse but to sue.
“I was blindsided. The hospital had a physician resiliency program that claimed to encourage physicians to seek help, [so] I thought they would be completely supportive and understanding,” Dr. Peddada said.
He told this news organization that he was naive to have been so honest with the hospital he’d long served as a contractor, including the decade-plus he›d spent directing its radiation oncology department.
“It is exceedingly painful to see hospital leadership use me in their advertisement[s] ... trying to profit off my reputation and work after devastating my career.”
The lawsuit Dr. Peddada filed in July in Colorado federal district court may offer a rare glimpse of the potential career ramifications of seeking help for physician burnout. Despite employers’ oft-stated support for physician wellness, Dr. Peddada’s experience may serve as a cautionary tale for doctors who are open about their struggles.
Centura Health did not respond to requests for comment. In court documents, the health system’s attorneys asked for more time to respond to Dr. Peddada’s complaint.
A plea for help
In the complaint, Dr. Peddada and his attorneys claim that Centura violated the state’s Anti-Discrimination Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it failed to offer reasonable accommodations after he began experiencing “physiological and psychological symptoms corresponding to burnout.”
Since 1999, Dr. Peddada had contracted exclusively with Centura to provide oncology services at its hospital, Penrose Cancer Center, and began covering a second Centura location in 2021. As medical director of Penrose’s radiation oncology department, he helped establish a community nurse navigator program and accounted for 75% of Centura’s radiation oncology referrals, according to the complaint.
But when his symptoms and fear for the safety of his patients became unbearable, Dr. Peddada requested an urgent evaluation from his primary care physician, who diagnosed him with “physician burnout” and recommended medical leave.
Shortly after presenting the leave request to Centura, rumors began circulating that he was having a “nervous breakdown,” the complaint noted. Dr. Peddada worried that perhaps his private health information was being shared with hospital employees.
After meeting with the hospital’s head of physician resiliency and agreeing to undergo a peer review evaluation by the Colorado Physician Health Program, which would decide the reinstatement timeline and if further therapy was necessary, Dr. Peddada was assured his leave would be approved.
Five days later, his job offer was revoked.
In an email from hospital leadership, the oncologist was informed that he had “declined employment” by failing to sign a revised employment contract sent to him 2 weeks prior when he was out of state on a preapproved vacation, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that Dr. Peddada was wrongfully discharged due to his disability after Centura “exploited [his] extensive patient base, referral network, and reputation to generate growth and profit.”
Colorado employment law attorney Deborah Yim, Esq., who is not involved in Peddada’s case, told this news organization that the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for physical or mental impairments that substantially limit at least one major life activity, except when the request imposes an undue hardship on the employer.
“Depression and related mental health conditions would qualify, depending on the circumstances, and courts have certainly found them to be qualifying disabilities entitled to ADA protection in the past,” she said.
Not all employers are receptive to doctors’ needs, says the leadership team at Physicians Just Equity, an organization providing peer support to doctors experiencing workplace conflicts like discrimination and retaliation. They say that Dr. Peddada’s experience, where disclosing burnout results in being “ostracized, penalized, and ultimately ousted,” is the rule rather than the exception.
“Dr. Peddada’s case represents the unfortunate reality faced by many physicians in today’s clinical landscape,” the organization’s board of directors said in a written statement. “The imbalance of unreasonable professional demands, the lack of autonomy, moral injury, and disintegrating practice rewards is unsustainable for the medical professional.”
“Retaliation by employers after speaking up against this imbalance [and] requesting support and time to rejuvenate is a grave failure of health care systems that prioritize the business of delivering health care over the health, well-being, and satisfaction of their most valuable resource – the physician,” the board added in their statement.
Dr. Peddada has since closed his private practice and works as an independent contractor and consultant, his attorney, Iris Halpern, JD, said in an interview. She says Centura could have honored the accommodation request or suggested another option that met his needs, but “not only were they unsupportive, they terminated him.”
Ms. Yim says the parties will have opportunities to reach a settlement and resolve the dispute as the case works through the court system. Otherwise, Dr. Peddada and Centura may eventually head to trial.