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State Looks to Protect Volunteer Docs from Malpractice Suits

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, April 1, 2010

The Medical Board already keeps a registry of physicians willing to volunteer for certain types of care, but only 250 names are now on it, a deficit that the board's report suggested may be because of fear of malpractice claims.

While it remains unclear that states with greater liability protection have higher rates of provider volunteerism, the report said, "Research in general suggests that states without volunteer tort immunity experience lower levels of volunteerism, and people are more likely to volunteer in those states which have higher levels of immunity."

"Lack of malpractice coverage is perceived as a serious impediment to attracting volunteers," the medical board report warned. "If California desires to promote physician volunteerism, then the legislation must adopt an immunity statute that does one or more of the following:

  • "Assures that the provider is not liable for common negligence, but only for gross negligence or willful misconduct.
  • "Sets forth that a physician volunteer would be considered a state employee when providing uncompensated care, under circumstances proscribed by the state.
  • "Establishes a state malpractice insurance program in which the state either purchases insurance for physician volunteers or establishes a self-insured pool."

The state also must determine which settings liability protections should apply, determine limits of the type of care that is protected, which patients are covered, and a clinic and physician registration process.

Swartz says that in researching the situation, she has discovered 700 physicians just in San Diego County would eagerly volunteer, many of them retired or semi-retired like herself, but who have shied away in fear.

"There are doctors in all areas and specialties who would love to help out," she said. "The patients would benefit so much. They'd get someone with a lot of experience and lots of ability—for no charge."


Cheryl Clark is senior quality editor and California correspondent for HealthLeaders Media. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.
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