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Litigious society brings doctors back to the classroom

RICHMOND, Va. — Except for a crop of gray hair, the enrollees in Sean Byrne’s malpractice course at the University of Richmond Law School look like normal students. They sip Starbucks coffee and tap out notes on their laptop keyboards. And with lumpy hair and bleary eyes, a few looked like they rolled out of bed after a few hours of sleep.

But instead of suffering the effects of late-night study, some of them might have come off a long night at a hospital. That is because more than half the students are physicians, many of them in obstetrics or other specialties at high risk for malpractice lawsuits. Some have been sued; others say it’s only a matter of time.

“I’m shocked at what is part of my life that nobody ever taught me about,” said Dr. Shannon Weatherford, an obstetrician in Richmond who is taking the Saturdays-only class. “Four years of medical school and four years of residency, and there’s nothing about the business of medicine and the legal aspects. This is just a single, terrific opportunity to get educated on something I should know about.”

Much of the interest in the course was sparked by soaring premiums and growing insurance losses from malpractice claims that have led to calls for tort reform (though some critics have accused insurers of overstating these losses).

The Association of American Law Schools knew of no other law school that has opened a malpractice course to practicing physicians. But Columbia Law School invites both law and medical students to an ethics class that raises malpractice issues. In addition, about a dozen medical schools around the country prepare their students with some sort of malpractice instruction, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The goal of University of Richmond’s new class is to address a wide gap in perceptions between the legal and medical professions.

Byrne says his own experience as an attorney representing health care providers has taught him that today’s lawyers frequently know little about the realities confronting doctors, while physicians often fail to understand the law.

By mixing the two groups, university administrators hope law students will get firsthand knowledge about common clinical situations and the daily stresses of practicing medicine. Physicians, they said, will learn about the law.

“We live in a litigious society, unfortunately, and a good part of that litigation is related to medical malpractice lawsuits,” said Porcher L. Taylor III, an associate professor in the continuing-studies school who came up with the idea for the course. “There’s got to be a resolution to this at some point in the future, and I hope this class will contribute toward that goal in a small way.”

Despite monopolizing students’ Saturdays, the course has proven to be popular in its first year, attracting 18 physicians, two hospital risk managers and 13 law students. The Doctors Company, a professional liability insurer based in Napa, Calif., was so pleased with the concept that it offered a 5 percent premium discount to Virginia physicians who pass the class. For a few physicians, the discount might even cover the cost of the $2,700 course.

The combination of law and physician students has led to a few eye rolls, prickly debates and barbed questions.

Some law students can barely conceal their exasperation when physicians argue about the fundamentals of malpractice law and blame attorneys for what’s wrong with health care, including rising malpractice rates.

“It’s as if no doctor has made a mistake that harmed” a patient, said Todd Rich, who plans to represent plaintiffs.

For their part, physicians have trouble masking their frustrations about the law.

They complain about frivolous claims that they believe have contributed to soaring liability insurance costs. At the same time, doctors are being squeezed on the other end — by health insurers.

Jonathan Petty, a busy plaintiffs’ attorney, got a good taste of the physicians’ resentment when he recently spoke to the class.

“I joked that he should wear a bulletproof vest,” said Byrne. “He didn’t get three words out of his mouth before there were questions: ‘Is it all about greed? Do you really care?”’

Still, several law students say they have learned from the physicians.

They now know about the daily pressures and the impacts of litigation on medical practitioners. Until the class, some were unaware that more physicians are practicing defensive medicine to thwart possible claims.

“We’re learning a lot, and our perspectives are changing,” said law student Brandy Waters.