The law that creates a Special Panel for Medical Malpractice Cases in Puerto Rico intends to address the need to review, without delay, the merits of these claims, whose resolution can take up to a decade. We hope that its implementation protects the rights of the parties while delivering justice.
The success of the statute would lie in its contribution to forge a more stable health system by resolving disputes faster. These lawsuits deter the practice of medicine on the island while encouraging the exodus of specialized doctors. That doctor drain translates into fewer options for patients.
This new law should both contribute to protect physicians from unfounded lawsuits and patients who could be genuinely affected by the lack of expertise or negligence. Medical malpractice is intolerable and has to be effectively fought.
The new statute creates a three-members panel who will review medical malpractice lawsuits and recommend a bond-like payment to patients making complaints. If the panel finds evidence, then the money will be returned.
However, it stipulates that this step won´t be necessary if plaintiffs submit an expert report or if the judge understands that the claim is not frivolous. The newly signed law provides that the panel would determine if a medical malpractice lawsuit does not apply when it is clearly unnecessary or unreasonable, or when there is no reason, relevance or logic for it.
An adequate regulation regarding the constitution of the panel will be key for the implementation of this law.
In addition, it is necessary to define the salary suggested for the members of the panel and ensure that the interest stated in the law is fulfilled so that its implementation does not represent a fiscal burden for the government.
According to the authorities, this law seeks to stop stem the exodus of doctors to the United States or other countries, where medical malpractice insurance and other protections are less expensive.
Physicians´ organizations estimate that between 2015 and 2017, 8,143 specialized doctors left the island. But, they fear this brain drain has deepened after the devastation caused by Hurricane María.
If the exodus continues, then the adequate care of patients with serious conditions is at risk, especially for diseases with high prevalence, such as cancer and diabetes. Last summer, there were only 21 oncologists, 27 hematologists, eight pediatric hematologists-oncologists and 33 endocrinologists on the island.
However, medical malpractice is not the only issue that must be addressed. Doctors also allude to high operational costs, delays in insurers payments, and the federal inequality in Medicaid and Medicare funds as reasons that discourage the practice of medicine on the island.
In this regard, in addition to the recently signed law, other mechanisms should be considered to stem the doctor drain in the short term. These doctors graduated in Puerto Rican universities and their professors greatly lament that they leave even when they have completed their residencies on the island.
The government, private health institutions, unions and citizens should work to articulate measures that encourage the return of doctors who emigrated and the recruitment of new health professionals to improve the quality of life in Puerto Rico.
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