The lawyer-doctor conflict

Tony Dyess did everything right. He lived in a good neighborhood with a good hospital nearby and he had health insurance. One day, on his way back from work, he was involved in a car crash. He was immediately taken to a nearby hospital, but there was no neurosurgeon there that could insert a shunt into his head to relieve the swelling in his brain. Dyess lay there for six hours before he was finally airlifted to another hospital that had the necessary personnel to treat him. His wife, Leanne Dyess, told this story in her testimony before the U.S. Congress, and then she revealed why there were no neurosurgeons at the first hospital; lawsuits. Apparently the specialist who could have helped Dyess retired due to the astronomical price of malpractice insurance premiums (source: http://judiciary.senate.gov/testimony.cfm?id=600&wit_id=1598).

America is becoming an increasingly litigious society, and tensions are mounting between the medical and legal professions. "USA Today" has reported that some doctors are refusing to treat lawyers, and hospital employees have been fired for having lawyer spouses. Something has to change.

A few weeks ago, Washington voters rejected I-330, which would have limited non-economic damages, costs not directly relatable to any monetary loss, and lawyer fees. I think laws like this would greatly ameliorate America’s health care.

According to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report ("Confronting the New Health Care Crisis"), states that have similar laws provide better access to care. It posits that states that have caps on non-economic damages have lower malpractice insurance premiums and therefore more doctors. The report provides many examples to illustrate this point. Some of the examples include a pregnant woman in Mississippi who had to drive over a hundred miles and cross state lines to have her baby delivered as well as a level-one trauma center in Las Vegas — the only one within five hours of the city — that had to close. Tacoma is mentioned in the report because some doctors may have to retire or relocate because insurance rates have tripled and in some cases doctors are having trouble getting insured at all. The report also noted an alarming number of private practices that have closed. One doctor said his only options were to retire or work 90-hour weeks. If this litigious atmosphere continues, doctors may have to take a vow of poverty in addition to the Hippocratic Oath.

Legislation like I-330 could also lower the cost of health care. The same report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services points to a study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that states that capping non-economic damages could cut health care costs by up to 9 percent. This represents over a hundred billion dollars.

A large part of the extra cost of health care the study discusses is due to doctors practicing "defensive medicine." Defensive medicine is basically doctors trying to shield themselves from lawsuits, ordering extra tests, procedures, medication, etc. According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association entitled "Defensive Medicine among High Risk Specialist Physicians in a Volatile Malpractice Environment," 93 percent of doctors said that they practice some form of defensive medicine. The study also reported that defensive medicine leads to less access to care, because doctors will refuse to treat certain people or people with certain needs.

There is definitely no shortage of ridiculous lawsuits in the legal system today. Stories like a man claiming that a car crash made him a homosexual or that flowerbeds need warning signs are funny, but malpractice lawsuits are not. While litigation about the hidden dangers of raised flower gardens may affect a few gardening enthusiasts, malpractice litigation affects everyone. It decreases access to quality care and it contributes to the expense.

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Title: The lawyer-doctor conflict | Author: Matt Juel | Section: Opinions | Published Date: 2005-11-30 | Internal ID: 4738