TCS Daily

First Do No Harm - Even to Trial Lawyers

By Sydney Smith - June 28, 2004 12:00 AM

The heart knows its own bitterness, and right now the bitterness in the hearts of many doctors is turning their grievances with the American Trial Lawyers Association into one that is very personal. A nurse in Arizona lost her job because she was married to a lawyer. A doctor in Mississippi refused to take on a daughter of an anti-tort reform legislator. And this month, at the American Medical Association's annual member meeting, one South Carolina physician went so far as to propose that the AMA recommend doctors not treat any attorney involved in a malpractice case. The proposal was voted down, loudly, as it should have been.

There's nothing new about this, although it is the first time the idea has been given such a prominent airing. The idea of refusing to treat trial lawyers and their families has been bandied about for years, but it has usually been relegated to after-dinner grumblings at conferences or to end-of-the-day rants on email listserves. For some, the thought of taking care of someone who makes a living picking apart medical decisions is just too stressful. But increasingly, for others, the refusal to treat lawyers is seen as an effective political weapon in the fight for tort reform. Boycott the lawyers. Make them feel our pain.

Although the tactic certainly gets attention, it isn't likely to be effective. Physicians have always maintained a right to refuse to treat a patient in non-emergency situations. Most doctors, for example, would refuse to treat a lawyer (or any patient) who threatens to sue, and justifiably so since the threat distorts the doctor-patient relationship. But refusing to treat someone simply because of their political beliefs or chosen profession, absent any overt threat, is nothing less than bigotry. And bigotry is not becoming.

To be sure, the medical malpractice crisis is pushing many doctors to desperation. We take it personally. How could we not when the profits of trial lawyers continue to spiral upward at our expense (and the expense of all Americans)? But the American public recognizes bad behavior when they see it. They recognize it in trial lawyers. They recognize it in Senators. And they recognize it in doctors. Treating trial lawyers and their families with extreme prejudice won't win any support for malpractice caps. But it may lose some.

Better to harden not the heart but to reach out generously, even to our political enemies. Who knows in what way their lives may be touched. And perhaps along the way, we could win some much needed allies.

Sydney Smith is a family physician who has been in private practice since 1991. She is board certified by the American Board of Family Practice, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Family Practice. She is the publisher of MedPundit.


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