Doctors' new approach: talk to patients about medical malpractice

By CONNIE MABIN, Associated Press Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - Dr. Perm Jawa has a new routine with patients: talk to them about the increasing medical malpractice insurance rates and why a fear of lawsuits keeps him from doing riskier surgeries.
Jawa, a Cleveland urologist, was among about 500 doctors attending a seminar Tuesday that is part of Ohio physicians' campaign to bring their side of the medical malpractice issue to the people they treat.
He said he hopes speaking with patients might ease his fears.
"I shy away from major cases now. Sometimes you know what the best thing is but you don't want to be doing it because there are potential complications with it," Jawa said. "You're not as aggressive as you should be."
The seminar was sponsored by the Patients Advocacy Group, which was formed this spring to help doctors, hospitals and other health care providers explain medical malpractice issues to the public.
"These guys are angry," Cleveland surgeon Dr. James Tasse, who started the group, said after speaking to the physicians who gathered at a downtown Cleveland hotel.
"Patients are losing access. We have to have a discourse because they have no clue why things are crumbling," Tasse said. "We need to let them know why it's falling apart and let them help us find solutions."
A public relations campaign includes erecting billboards in major Ohio cities that ask patients to talk to their doctors about electing state supreme court judges who might review state caps on lawsuit damages.
State law that took effect in April caps pain-and-suffering damages in medical malpractice lawsuits at $350,000 for most claims and $500,000 for injuries causing permanent damage. The caps are higher for claims involving more than one person and catastrophic injuries.
But doctors say the law isn't helping insurance rates go down and they need the public's ideas on how to stop good physicians from leaving the field.
Not everyone sees it the doctors' way, though.
Trial lawyers and other opponents of lawsuit caps blame insurance companies for the situation and say caps block people with legitimate claims from being fairly compensated.
Frank Clemente, director of consumer advocate Public Citizen's Congress Watch in Washington, D.C., said he's worried patients might not be getting the whole story from physicians.
"I guess my concern is, it's a bit of a brainwashing going on. It's a one-sided view that's being shared with their patients," Clemente said.
Messages left with a spokesman for Ohio Hospital Insurance Co., the only Ohio-based medical malpractice insurance company, were not immediately returned Tuesday.
Cecilia Franklin, 55, of Cleveland, said she thinks it's a good idea for physicians to talk to patients about how medical malpractice rates are affecting access to health care. She believes costly insurance is one reason several trauma care centers and doctors left her neighborhood.
"I do feel that America has become sue crazy, and unfortunately I happen to live in an area where hospital after hospital is just closing up," she said.
Dr. David Jacobs, a radiologist in the suburb of Mayfield Heights, said not all patients are as understanding.
The issue is difficult to discuss because many people believe doctors can afford high insurance rates, he said.
Jacobs hopes talking to patients will help them understand that limiting lawsuits is about more than money for physicians.

"I may say to them, 'I feel this procedure may help you but because it's too risky, I'm not probably not going to do it,'" Jacobs said. "You feel like there's a lawyer on the back of your shoulder and that produces a level of anxiety.

"I'd be willing to make a lot less money if I could work and enjoy it."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)