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Florida medical malpractice bill raises patient privacy concerns

Both houses of the Florida legislature have passed a bill that could make it more difficult to file a medical malpractice suit, and discourage some people from doing so. If Governor Rick Scott signs the bill, it will become law.

The bill is supported by the Florida Medical Association. The group's president says he hopes the legislation will ease the burden of malpractice suits on Florida physicians. This, he says, would encourage more physicians to relocate to Florida, which would improve Floridians' access to health care.

The Florida Justice Association opposes the legislation because it endangers patient privacy and confidentiality between physicians and patients. The executive director of the group says that the proposed changes may actually be unconstitutional.

Opponents of the legislation particularly object to two provisions in the bill. One lets physicians' attorneys question health care professionals who treated the patient after the physician who is being sued. They may do this during in the period preceding the filing of the suit. Although health care providers would not be required to give information to the attorneys or answer their questions, they would no longer be prevented from doing so based on the legal concept of patient confidentiality.

Although the current state laws involving confidentiality would still apply once a suit is filed, opponents of the legislation argue that the ability to obtain this information in the lawsuit preparation period would be a breach of a patient's medical privacy. Supporters of the bill contend that by filing a malpractice suit, a plaintiff essentially waives any right to privacy about the medical condition involved.

Another provision the bill's opponents find objectionable is a restriction on qualifications for expert witnesses. The legislation would require that to testify as an expert witness a physician must practice in the specific field about which he or she is testifying, and not just a similar field, as currently required. Opponents of the bill say that this would limit the number of people whom attorneys can call to testify.

As with any issue involving malpractice lawsuits, people on both sides have strong opinions. Many physicians believe that the tort system works against them. However, patient advocates, including attorneys who handle malpractice cases believe, as do many citizens, that patients should be able to bring malpractice suits if they have been harmed without giving up their rights to medical privacy without their permission.

Source: Renal & Urology News, "Florida Medical Malpractice Bill Close to Becoming Law" Ann W. Ladner, JD, Sep. 10, 2013

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