Date Published: 15 January 2009

Liability concerns may harm public health emergency response

Health News from the United States of America (USA).

Public health emergency relief efforts can be hindered because the U.S. lacks clear liability protection laws for all medical emergency responders. Concerns about liability exposure and a lack of guidance on the scope of liability that medical emergency responders could face may make doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals wary of responding to emergencies. These are the findings of a study published today in the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness journal.

The study finds that the U.S. liability law is a patchwork with many gaps and inconsistencies that do not always protect health care providers during emergencies. Hospitals or clinics that donate their time, space, supplies, and resources to emergency response efforts and individual responders who continue to receive a salary from their employer are at the greatest risk. The absence of liability protection is of concern because these health care professionals are likely to be on the front lines as hundreds or thousands of patients rush to emergency rooms, clinics and physicians offices. They could be sued and found liable for a variety of decisions and actions made during a public health emergency.

Without clear direction on liability exposure and protection, medical responders may be hesitant to participate in essential response activities,” said study lead author Sharona Hoffman, J.D., senior associate dean and co-director for the Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. “Clarification of liability and immunity standards for health care professionals could greatly contribute to the effectiveness of public health emergency response.”

Although Congress and all 50 states have limited laws that provide some level of liability protection for volunteers responding to a public health emergency, more legislative clarification is needed. A comprehensive immunity provision that addresses liability for all health care providers is one potential approach. One possible model would be to establish that as long as certain conditions are met, no medical responder could be liable for injuries or harm caused by good faith actions used in a public health emergency. Responders must act under the direction of governmental authorities or nonprofit organizations, and they cannot be engaged in willful misconduct, gross negligence or criminal activity.

In crafting appropriate liability and immunity provisions for public health emergencies, policymakers must balance individual justice and general public welfare,” said Ms. Hoffman. “The law should encourage involvement in response activities without excusing misconduct.”


Source: American Medical Association (AMA).

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