Local physicians, attorneys team up

In some states, the two sides are putting their troubles in the past to work with one another, and with other professionals.

By Damon Adams — Posted July 3, 2006

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In the Pittsburgh area, physicians and attorneys agree on at least one thing: They want to promote greater diversity in their professions.

Local medical, legal and architectural leaders met in the city in June for a symposium about attracting minorities to the area and fostering a diverse community. But the event was more than that -- it was about building a relationship between physicians and attorneys, mending wounds from battles over issues such as medical liability.

"It breaks down a lot of the barriers that have focused, unfortunately, on tort reform," said Terence Starz, MD, president of the Allegheny County Medical Society, which partnered with the Allegheny County Bar Assn. and other groups for the June 2 event. "We have a lot more similarities than differences."

In many circles, physicians and attorneys get along as well as Yankees and Red Sox fans. Recent fights over tort reform in many towns and cities have created a chasm as difficult to bridge as the Grand Canyon.

But like the Allegheny County effort, more physicians and attorneys throughout the United States are trying to put their feuds behind them and forge better ties. Both sides say they can accomplish more working together than sparring.

"We met at the fork in the road and went down a common path," said Bob Racunas, a Pittsburgh attorney and president of the Allegheny County Bar Assn., who did a radio spot with Dr. Starz promoting the partnership to foster diversity.

Similar partnerships of medical societies and lawyer organizations are shaping up in states such as Ohio, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Doctors and lawyers have come together in Ohio through events of the Academy of Medicine of Toledo and Lucas County and the Toledo Bar Assn. For several years, they teed off on the golf course in a joint tournament. Now the two Toledo groups co-sponsor a yearly seminar, including this year's gathering with a keynote speaker who discussed cooperation between the professions. The programs provide credits for continuing legal education and continuing medical education.

"We have to be able to talk if there is a problem. We have to have a vehicle," said Lee Wealton, MPH, the academy's executive director, adding that such partnerships provide a medium for the dialogue.

Forging better relations

The Stark County Medical Society in Canton, Ohio, has teamed up with local law firms to present programs to physicians. A few years ago, a firm helped present a mock trial that showed what a doctor encounters in a medical liability case.

In 2004, about 150 physicians listened as guest speakers -- including five judges -- spoke about why patients sue, the lawyer's role in litigation and the jury's role. This March, a CME program with attorneys from a local law firm addressed medical liability trends.

"The attorneys we've had are very well-respected in the community. I've never heard anyone say, 'Don't bring these attorneys back,' " said JoAnn LaRocco, executive director of the Stark medical society.

An article in the Oct. 26, 2005, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association discussed improving relations between attorneys and physicians. The authors said recurring medical liability crises have exposed physician antipathy toward attorneys. They noted media reports about some doctors refusing to treat trial lawyers.

The article said the two sides could come together to consider central problems facing law and medicine and called for a renewed physician-attorney dialogue that focuses on shared values and concerns for patient safety.

That's what is happening in Mississippi. In November 2004, the Mississippi State Medical Assn. and the Mississippi Bar Assn. held the first meeting of a medical/bar liaison committee formed in response to deteriorating relations in the wake of tort reform battles. Later, the two groups adopted a professional guide that set standards for proper conduct for physicians and attorneys.

"The first meeting was really tense. Now they're good buddies," said Linda McMullen, general counsel of Mississippi's medical association.

At one committee meeting, attorneys voiced concerns about new regulations by the state's medical board on physicians who provide expert witness testimony. The medical society supported the measure.

"You discover that lawyers are people, too, and they discover that doctors are people, too. When you connect on the human level, then you're able to solve those impasses that inevitably come up," McMullen said.

Strides are being made in Tennessee, as well.

Last year physicians and attorneys formed an alliance to evaluate the credibility of expert witness testimony in medical liability cases. Under a pilot program of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and the Chattanooga Bar Assn., a judge can call on an expert to determine if a witness' opinion should be allowed in court.

The American Medical Association, which has worked with the American Bar Assn. on issues in the past, applauded the program and is monitoring its progress.

The program and meetings between attorneys and physicians in Tennessee are making new friends of old enemies.

"One doctor turned to a lawyer [at one meeting] and said, 'This is getting scary,' " said Circuit Judge Neil Thomas III, who spearheaded the pilot program's creation. " 'What do you mean this is getting scary?' the lawyer said. And the doctor said, 'I'm beginning to like you.' "

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