Scientologist physician sues North Dakota hospital over religious discrimination

A former Grand Forks, N.D.-based Altru Health System physician filed a lawsuit against the hospital Nov. 20, claiming the hospital system discriminated against him because he is a Scientologist, according to The Bismarck Tribune.

Here are six things to know:

1. Ralph Highshaw, MD, worked as a urologist at Altru Health System from 2013-16. He filed a complaint against the health system Nov. 20, claiming the system "engaged in unlawful employment practices," violated his civil rights, retaliated against him and forced him to resign because of his religion, the report states.

2. Dr. Highshaw alleged several instances of discrimination by the system and its providers, according to court documents obtained by The Bismarck Tribune. He was placed on five-month review by the system in August 2014 because of complications related to patient surgeries he worked on, according to the lawsuit and documents filed with the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights obtained by the publication.

3. Documents suggest Dr. Highshaw faced additional scrutiny for his surgery practices in July 2015, and his patient list was cut down in 2016. He was placed on administrative leave later that year. Dr. Highshaw also claimed in the Nov. 20 complaint that Altru Health System threatened to fire him if he failed to attend a behavioral health program for "workplace consulting services," despite his claims the program violated his Scientologist beliefs. Dr. Highshaw resigned shortly after.

4. The Nov. 20 complaint comes on the heels of an investigation by the state labor and human rights department, which said in August the agency did not find evidence indicating Altru Health System discriminated against Dr. Highshaw on the basis of religion. Dr. Highshaw filed a complaint with the department in January 2017.

5. Altru Health System denied any discrimination against Dr. Highshaw because of his religion to the labor and human rights department, claiming instead the "concern that Altru Health System had with Dr. Highshaw was with his performance and not with his religious beliefs," the report states. The system claimed Dr. Highshaw had poor organizational skills, made medical errors and "[used] nonstandard and sometimes questionable surgery techniques," among other complaints.

6. Altru Health System has faced other claims of religious discrimination in recent years. A Muslim physician at the institution filed a complaint with the state labor department against Altru Health System in January 2017 claiming the system did not treat foreign-born and Muslim employees as well as its American and Christian staff. The claim was dismissed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in December 2017.

To access the full report, click here.

Editor's note: Becker's Hospital Review reached out to Altru Health System for comment and will update the report as more information becomes available.

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