Thursday, June 10, 2004

Doctors getting feisty: are there any ethical limits?

NPR's Morning Edition today ran a segment it describes this way:
A South Carolina doctor is asking the American Medical Association to approve as ethical a policy that would permit doctors to refuse treating medical malpractice lawyers. The proposal demonstrates how heated the debate over medical malpractice has become.
At 4 minutes and 2 seconds, it's well worth a listen. When the transcript becomes available, I'll offer some salient excerpts (in the spirit of Fair Use). For now, here's the gist: Fed up with the perceived effect of allegedly frivolous lawsuits, this physician believes he is so biased against plaintiffs' attorneys that he can't trust himself to provide competent medical care.

The Charleston (S.C.) Post & Courier ran a story about this physician's quest in its May 29 edition (requires free registration):

Tucked among the stacks of resolutions to be debated at the American Medical Association's annual meeting next month will be one that, if approved, is sure to inflame the already white-hot debate over medical malpractice liability reforms. It also may sound familiar to South Carolinians: The proposal urges the AMA to inform doctors that it is not unethical to stop treating attorneys and their families in non-emergency cases.

The man behind the idea is prominent Charleston surgeon Dr. Chris Hawk. In March, he urged doctors at the South Carolina Medical Association meeting to quit treating plaintiffs' lawyers and their families in an effort to soften trial lawyers' resistance to malpractice reform.

That call ignited a firestorm, leading to intense criticism from lawyers and some doctors who called it unethical and said it takes the debate over malpractice premiums too far. . . .

When the AMA's House of Delegates meets June 12, various AMA committees will sift through hundreds of resolutions that delegates will vote on over the course of the three-day meeting. . . .

The resolutions are typically filed by either medical specialty societies or state associations like the South Carolina Medical Association. In this case, Hawk, an AMA delegate, introduced the proposal himself -- a rare occurrence that happens just once or twice a year, an AMA official said.

How well Hawk's proposal will fare is far from certain. In March, when Hawk made similar comments at the SCMA meeting pushing doctors to drop attorney patients, the association's board made it a point to insist that it didn't endorse the idea.

One board member called Hawk's position "totally off the wall."

Hawk said that in his view, it's not unethical to deny care to patients as long as the doctor is not dealing with a medical emergency and as long as the patient is given 30 days' notice.

Here's the text of Hawk's Resolution 202 (Word file):

Resolution: 202

Introduced by: J. Chris Hawk, III, MD, Delegate, South Carolina

Subject: Reform of Civil Justice System

Referred to: Reference Committee B
(Michael J. Fischer, MD, Chair)

Whereas, Tort reform has been our number one legislative priority; and

Whereas, Our American Medical Association has been concentrating on MICRA-like reform, particularly a cap on non-economic damages, when in fact we need major reform of the entire civil justice system; and

Whereas, Our current efforts at tort reform have failed at a national level; and

Whereas, We need to get beyond tort reform to other issues that are vital to medicine and our patients; and

Whereas, Patients’ access to medical care has diminished progressively and is likely to continue to do so, due to high malpractice insurance premiums forcing physicians to reduce their scope of practice, relocate, and retire early; and

Whereas, Our Principles of Medical Ethics IX states, “A physician shall support access to medical care for all people”; and

Whereas, If trial attorneys were given the opportunity to experience the access problems caused by the professional liability crisis, then perhaps they would be willing to help change the system; and

Whereas, Our Principles of Medical Ethics VI states, “A physician shall, in the provision of appropriate patient care, except in emergencies, be free to choose whom to serve, with whom to associate, and the environment in which to provide medical care” therefore be it

RESOLVED, That our American Medical Association notify physicians that, except in emergencies and except as otherwise required by law or other professional regulation, it is not unethical to refuse care to plaintiffs’ attorneys and their spouses (New HOD Policy); and

RESOLVED, That our AMA organize a national task force, forum, or town meeting to reform the civil justice system, or get medical professional liability moved to an alternate dispute system, with report back by the 2005 Annual Meeting (Directive to Take Action); and

RESOLVED, That our AMA continue our efforts to reform the US health care system.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial writer Linda Campbell has an eminently sensible response to Dr. Hawk's crusade:
This jaw-dropping measure, presented as a means of addressing diminishing access to health care, laments the medical profession's inability to impose a $250,000 national cap on pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice lawsuits - as though that were the magic antidote for chronically bloated insurance premiums.

Among its whereases, the resolution suggests that "if trial attorneys were given the opportunity to experience the access problems caused by the professional liability crisis, then perhaps they would be willing to help change the system."

So, Hawk believes, the AMA should "notify physicians that, except in emergencies and except as otherwise required by law or other professional regulation, it is not unethical to refuse care to plaintiffs' attorneys and their spouses."

Forget about that Hippocratic oath.

Let's indulge in discrimination according to livelihood - not to mention guilt by marital association.

Hawk told The Post and Courier in Charleston, "My obligation now is to try to improve the system, because we already have patients not getting care."

It requires truly warped logic to imagine that this tactic would advance that cause in any fashion.

If anyone thinks that Hawk's effort is merely an aberration, consider that the Christian Coalition of Alabama recently asked candidates for judicial office whether they would pledge to spurn campaign funding from personal injury trial lawyers, The Birmingham News reported. The organization considers Roe v. Wade an "activist" decision, and judges backed by trial lawyers tend to be "judicial activists," and so, of course, you see the connection.

What all this really accomplishes is to distract from meaningful debate about daunting problems.

Forty-three million Americans remain without health insurance. Many suffer for want of treatment. Someone has to pay to treat them when they get sick. But the cost of medical care climbs.

Medical malpractice insurance companies continue to hike premiums even in states that have limited awards for non-economic damages.

Texas voters last fall approved a constitutional amendment capping non-economic damages, but it hasn't immediately translated into lower malpractice insurance rates for many physicians.

Texas Medical Liability Trust reduced its rates by 12 percent, as promised.

But, late last year, the Joint Underwriting Association asked to raise rates 35 percent for physicians, surgeons and other health care providers and almost 68 percent for hospitals, a request denied by Texas Insurance Commissioner Jose Montemayor.

Yet another insurer, General Electric Medical Protective, switched to an unregulated type of insurance so that it could increase premiums by 10 percent.

In Ohio, malpractice premiums are expected to go up 10 percent to 40 percent this year, even though the state adopted pain-and-suffering caps, "The Advocate" newspaper in central Ohio reported in February.
She ends with a comment that gets to the nub of the problem:
Brooklyn Law School professor Anthony J. Sebok wrote in December that the usual suspects with the loudest voices on America's "liability crisis" miss the point about what needs reforming in the tort system.

"It is so expensive to litigate that few deserving victims sue, and many blameless defendants settle just so they can escape the expense and uncertainty of the civil justice system," he wrote on

That can't be corrected with simplistic solutions or absurd ethical practices.
posted by tommayo, 7:39 AM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter