Thursday, March 11, 2004

Texas Company Removes Web List of Malpractice Plaintiffs 

A doctors' Web site that compiled and posted the names of patients who have sued doctors for malpractice closed on Wednesday after complaints that it amounted to a blacklist.

The action was welcomed by patients who had been listed and a consumer advocacy group, Texas Watch, that called the five-month-old site "a mean-spirited database to deny access to medical care."

This web site, and the various political and ethical questions that it raised, is a great example of the explosive power of the Web. There is a lot of information in the world that is literally public, in the sense that it is available to anybody who asks for it. Much of it resides in American courthouses. As long as this information is difficult to find, digest, catalog and search, nobody much gives a damn. But if you go to the trouble to organize it into one web site into a form that an interested party can search through conveniently, people go wild with rage.

The opponents aren't really complaining about the existence of the web site. They are complaining about the response to the web site. In this case, some doctors may have used the web site's data to "blacklist" patients. Is this inappropriate or unethical for a doctor to do? DB's Medical Rants has some interesting thinking on the topic, here, here, and here.

Of course, a doctor needn't use the information on the web site to blacklist patients. He or she might decide to spend more time with the patient, more carefully explaining the risks entailed with the medical procedure in question, or the error rate associated with diagnosis in general. This would be a good thing for the patient and the doctor, even if it is bad news for the trial bar, which feeds off of anger more than anything else.

Then again, a doctor might use the database to lower the risk of a malpractice claim by ordering more than the usual number of laboratory tests. In this case, the use of the database burdens the patient's employer, or the government, with added expense. Is this fair for the doctor to do?

My own view is that everybody is entitled to one lawsuit. Bad things happen, and the courts exist to shift damages to the wrongdoer on those occasions when somebody has, in fact, been damaged. However, since most people go their entire lives without bringing a lawsuit, or even having a plausible cause to seek recoveries other than small claims, we should view a person's second lawsuit with great skepticism. The second lawsuit suggests a person who did not learn a damn thing from their first experience (check out your doctor, ask questions, learn what you can about the treatments you receive and the drugs you take), or worse, a person looking to recover on fraudulent, or at least unsympathetic, grounds.


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