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Hospitals' referrals to malpractice lawyers sparking debate

Would you accept a cheating spouse's referral of a divorce lawyer? What would you think if the person who caused your injuries in an accident offered you the name of an attorney to consult? In Maryland several medical systems have lists of screened lawyers they feel comfortable referring patients to for possible medical malpractice cases. It's a situation that is sparking debate within the ranks of medical and legal experts.

There are a number of organizations who follow the practice. They include MedStar Health, LifeBridge Health and the University of Maryland Medical System. Officials for those hospitals and attorneys on their lists say the referral system is a good thing for patient victims and their families. They say the focus is on resolving claims fairly and in a way that avoids protracted litigation. Officials say attorneys make the list by having a solid reputation and agreeing to accept reduced rates.

On the other side of the debate are those who say the referral system is rife with conflict of interest. They suggest that the attorneys on the lists might be inclined to favor the hospitals, rather than advocating wholeheartedly for their patient clients.

It's not clear how many referrals actually get made. The hospitals say not many. One example reported on recently by The Baltimore Sun involved MedStar. According to court documents from the lawsuit, a 57-year-old woman's thyroid surgery last summer resulted in complications. She suffered brain damage and a coma.

Two top hospital officials approached the family offering compensation. The family declined. The suit says the officials then provided the name of a lawyer, described him as a friend of the hospital's risk management director and an attorney who had previously defended the hospital in malpractice cases. The family opted for their own attorney.

The head of the Maryland bar association's ethics committee takes a middle ground on the issue. T. Christine Pham is quoted in the report as saying that hospitals referring patients to an attorney isn't inherently unethical. She says bar conduct rules prohibit attorneys from allowing referral sources to influence their professional judgment.

Supporters of the system further defend it as just one element of a larger ongoing dialogue about reforming malpractice litigation. MedStar says its driving motivation for using it is to get appropriate compensation into the hands of patients immediately, rather than after expensive, painful, time consuming litigation.

Source: The Baltimore Sun, "Malpractice lawyer recommendations come from unlikely source: hospitals," Tricia Bishop, Jan. 28, 20120


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