Standing Up For Patients

by Attorney Veronica A. Richards

(This letter appeared in the November 23, 2003, edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

I am writing to thank Steve Twedt for his series on the silencing of “whistle-blower” physicians who speak out when they witness ongoing negligence in medical settings (“The Cost of Courage,” Oct. 26-29). In the series, an emergency medicine specialist states that physicians “are the only people who can stand up for patients.” I disagree.

I am a former nurse practitioner who, along with my nursing colleagues, routinely stood up for patients. As a trial attorney for medical malpractice victims, I have a similar role.

Yes, the goal of medical malpractice suits is to win compensation for victims of negligence, but they often do something more. They “stand up for patients.” They improve the way health care is delivered. When appropriate, as a condition of settling a claim, medical malpractice lawyers require that changes be instituted in the hospital where the injury occurred. Our goal is to ensure that the injuries suffered by our clients won’t be repeated.

Unfortunately, that’s where the advocacy ends. Just as physicians are silenced (many are now forbidden by their hospitals to even meet with attorneys like me), malpractice victims are silenced as well.

Most malpractice suits settle out of court. In return, the injured patient is usually required (some would say “forced”) to sign a confidentiality agreement. Upon signing it, the patient is gagged. He or she is legally forbidden to share — with anyone — any information.

What does this mean? It means that the public cannot learn about chronically high-risk health care practices and practitioners.

As the medical malpractice reform debate continues, we must remember that the complete picture is not being presented. As the pros and cons of various solutions are argued, those most affected by any reform — namely, the patients who have been injured — are often silenced and forbidden to “blow the whistle.”