Capilouto apologizes for 'imperfect' handling of UK surgeon who lost clinical privileges

Dr. Paul Kearney
said  Capilouto's apology "is too late and not enough."
Dr. Paul Kearney said Capilouto's apology "is too late and not enough." Herald-Leader

University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto has apologized for how his administration handled some aspects of stripping clinical privileges from a UK surgeon, but he stood by the decision to do so.

"We have taken unprecedented measures in recent months as a member of our community chose by word and deed to abandon our shared commitment to mutual respect and inclusion," Capilouto said. "These days are sad ... . This in many ways is new ground we are tilling. And our management of the results of the actions of our Board of Trustees has been imperfect. And for that I apologize."

At the University Senate meeting Monday, Capilouto addressed the matter of disciplining Paul Kearney; he released his remarks in an email to faculty Wednesday morning.

Kearney, a highly respected surgeon for the past 30 years at UK, was reprimanded for abusive language toward co-workers and one patient. A Board of Trustees health care committee voted last month to uphold a previous panel's decision to drop Kearney's clinical privileges at UK, though they upheld his status as a tenured faculty member. The committee had never before met to decide such a matter, UK officials said.

Capilouto's remarks appeared to be focused on how Kearney was treated during the months-long discipline process, during which he was locked out of his office and banned from setting foot on campus or talking to any UK employees because he allegedly posed a danger. According to documents, Kearney's email was directed to the UK HealthCare staff attorney for constant review.

After the trustees committee made clear that Kearney remained a tenured faculty member, Capilouto ordered the formation of another committee that, according to general counsel William Thro, decided Kearney would not be allowed to attend lecture series or presentations by visiting professors. Kearney said this second opinion was based on an assertion that he had been disruptive at an Aug. 27 mortality and morbidity conference.

On Wednesday, UK chief of surgery Patrick McGrath sent former faculty trustee and Kearney defender Davy Jones an email saying that surgery faculty who attended thought Kearney "was not disruptive to the educational experience of the residents at that M&M."

Kearney said Wednesday that Capilouto's apology "is too late and not enough. It's this narrative they continue to spin about me and others who have criticized the administration."

When UK returned Kearney's computer, it did not include his hard drive. UK spokesman Jay Blanton said UK kept the hard drive to ensure Kearney could not access protected health information.

"Although Dr. Kearney claimed that no (protected health information) was on the hard drive, the university has found 17 documents and an additional 18 files that contain (it)," Blanton said.

Officials continue to review Kearney's files, Blanton said, but they returned personal computer files to Kearney on Tuesday morning.

Capilouto defended the decision to revoke Kearney's privileges after a career that was full of accolades but also contained numerous official rebukes for his behavior with colleagues and staff.

"A physician may use finely honed knowledge and finely trained skills to preserve the lives and well-being of patients but may not use abusive language and behaviors that can affect the quality of care even in the most trying of circumstances," Capilouto said. "A senior faculty member may push other faculty and staff to work harder and perform better but may not insult, demean or intimidate other members of our community."

Kearney's case has opened fault lines in the relationship between administrators and faculty.

The trustees committee that decided Kearney's fate met with all trustees behind closed doors during a lengthy discussion. The committee upheld a previous recommendation to revoke Kearney's privileges but also voted to uphold his status as a tenured faculty member, upending several of the administration's punishments against Kearney, including the ban from campus.

Shortly after that, Board of Trustees chairman Keith Gannon withdrew his name from consideration to continue as chairman but declined to specify a reason. He was replaced by his predecessor, Louisville physician Britt Brockman. At last month's University Senate meeting, faculty voted to commend Gannon for his concern for academic freedom and shared governance between faculty and administration.

Lee Blonder, former chairwoman of the University Senate Council, said she appreciated Capilouto's remarks, but said they still left questions.

"I think it is commendable that President Capilouto apologized ... his apology is critical in reaffirming the authority of the board," she said. "However, one reason why we have reached this point in our discourse is because 'members of our community' relayed evidence that exposed actions of the administration with respect to the Paul Kearney case; actions that some think may challenge academic freedom, the rights and privileges of a tenured faculty member, and the decisions of the University Health Care Committee of the Board of Trustees."

For his part, Capilouto reiterated his support for academic freedom and mutual respect, but he also took aim at those who have consistently challenged the administration over Kearney.

"I am disappointed with how some recent decisions have been handled, but they all are my responsibility. I accept that without hesitation," he said. "Criticism is appropriate when grounded in facts. All the facts. But what I do find disappointing and unproductive is the seemingly constant effort on the part of some members of our community to rush to judgment at every perceived error. And rather than reach out in an attempt to understand all the facts and circumstances, the sad instinct is to immediately rush to public criticism. And that criticism, in the absence of facts, is little more than an ill-informed rant and often takes on a personal and mean-spirited tone toward the administration in general and individual administrators in particular. While you may find some peculiar pride in doing so, I believe it reflects poorly on the faculty colleagues for whom you claim to speak."

Kearney has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against UK, saying he is being punished for having questioned financial decisions by Michael Karpf, executive vice president of UK HealthCare. Kearney is still being paid $350,000 as a tenured professor at the College of Medicine.

UK has not said whether it will attempt to revoke Kearney's tenure.

Kearney is also being sued by a former patient, who said Kearney cursed at him during a medical procedure.

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