Doctors’ Group Helps Reduce Frivolous Lawsuits

Published February 1, 2008

Providing a way to cope with a tort system that imposes huge unnecessary costs on doctors and other providers, Medical Justice, a membership-based organization run by physicians, has helped doctors successfully defend themselves against various meritless medical malpractice cases for the past five years.

The Greensboro, North Carolina-based organization currently represents more than 1,600 doctors in 47 states and is actively involved in more than 500 open medical malpractice cases. Founder Jeffrey Segal, M.D., a neurosurgeon, observed firsthand the need for a group that could focus solely on “keeping physicians from being sued for frivolous reasons.”

His initiative has worked. Medical Justice’s physicians face fewer lawsuits overall than nonmembers–2 percent of all their cases result in malpractice claims annually, while the national average is 8 to 12 percent.

Contractual Relationship

“Medical Justice uses two core components,” explained Marc Barnes, the organization’s director of public relations. “The first is [a] contract that patients sign with physicians. The contract states that if a genuine dispute over care arises, each side agrees to use board-certified experts who are members of, and follow the code of ethics for, their specialty society.

“The contract serves as a powerful deterrent against plaintiffs prosecuting meritless cases,” Barnes said.

Suing the Suers

When a patient decides to sue a Medical Justice member, the organization initiates an early intervention, notifying the plaintiff’s attorney of the doctor’s membership.

“Often, this [alone] is enough to persuade the plaintiff to drop a meritless case,” Barnes said.

If the case goes to court and the doctor wins, Medical Justice convenes a panel of physicians from the same specialty–and a group of lawyers–to determine whether it was a frivolous lawsuit.

If so, “Medical Justice can pursue counterclaims against any and all proponents of the lawsuit,” Barnes said. “That includes plaintiffs in civil court, and it also includes actions taken against expert witnesses outside of court–for example, before state licensing boards and professional societies.”

Eliminating Wasteful Costs

Eliminating the cost of frivolous lawsuits lowers the overall cost of health care–and that just makes good political sense, Barnes noted.

“A recent survey indicates that Americans overwhelmingly support medical liability reform by a 71 to 29 percent margin,” Barnes explained.

“Physicians who are plan members are also reporting that, when asked, virtually all patients are willing to sign a contract in which they promise not to sue their physician for frivolous reasons–and in which they further promise to use a specialist from the same medical specialty as an expert witness, should a genuine dispute over care later arise,” Barnes continued.

Negotiating Contracts

John R. Graham, director of health care studies at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, applauded the idea but noted it’s still in its infancy.

“A contract that a patient and doctor voluntarily sign before treatment is a good solution,” Graham said. “Whether patients agree to sign the contracts is something time will tell. However, I think that negotiating contracts is always the best way to address issues like this, rather than relying on sweeping legislation or regulation that has unintended consequences for which there is no remedy.”

Others cautioned that while the plan works for a small group, it might not succeed as a more widespread reform.

“I doubt if a contract such as this is enforceable,” said Greg Scandlen, president of Consumers for Health Care Choices, an advocacy group based in Hagerstown, Maryland. “People cannot be bound to a contract that removes their constitutional rights–in this case the right to free speech. It might be possible to do this in the context of an employment agreement, but in this case it is the patient who is employing the physician, not the other way around.”

Dr. Sanjit Bagchi ([email protected]) writes from India.

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