Docs Rock the Malpractice Boat

Physician's Money Digest, August15 2004, Volume 11, Issue 15

Physicians are getting angrier over soaring malpracticepremiums—and now they're starting to geteven. According to the Medical Group ManagementAssociation, US medical group practices had malpracticeinsurance premium increases that averaged 38%in 2002 and 2003. Some doctors, blaming lawyers forwhat they see as a flood of frivolous malpractice suits,have refused to treat lawyers, their families, and theiremployees except in an emergency.

Although some critics question the ethics of such amove, doctors who have withheld treatment fromlawyers insist that it's ethical to do so, and one doctoreven introduced a resolution to the AMA's House ofDelegates calling for the AMA's endorsement of such apolicy. The resolution, submitted by J. Chris Hawk, MD,a South Carolina surgeon, was eventually withdrawn,but not before it had generated a heated debate andprompted a deluge of media coverage.

Black Sheep Patients

Until recently, doctors have responded to skyrocketingmalpractice premiums in a variety of ways. Somehave retired from practice, others have moved tostates where the malpractice environment is friendlier,and others, such as neurosurgeons and OB/GYN doctors,have cut back on the areas of their practices thatcontribute to higher premiums. Now, however, somedoctors are taking a tougher stance.

Although most doctors maintain that refusing totreat lawyers is rare, anecdotal evidence suggests thatit's becoming a more common strategy. Several exampleswere aired in the media after Dr. Hawk's resolutionwas submitted to the AMA, including one inwhich a Mississippi plastic surgeon declined to treatthe daughter of a state lawmaker who had votedagainst malpractice reform. In another case, a Texaswoman was fired from her hospital job because herhusband worked in a medical malpractice law firm.

Publicity Efforts

Although much of the media attention has focusedon doctors who don't want to take on lawyers aspatients, the legal profession is also battling attemptsby doctors to publicize the names of lawyers andpatients who have filed malpractice suits. One sucheffort, a Web site developed by a Texas radiologist,was shut down after the media reported that peopleon the list had difficulties obtaining medical care.

Another proposed Internet effort involves makinga list of doctors who testify against other physicians inmalpractice cases. A resolution calling for the creationof such a Web site has been submitted to the AMAHouse of Delegates. Lawyers call such efforts a blacklist,which will make it harder for patients to get a fairhearing in malpractice suits.