David Bobman, M.D., President, Chester County Medical Society
The recent move by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to change a long-standing venue rule has stirred apprehension within the state's medical community. The rule, established in 2003, mandates that medical malpractice lawsuits must be filed in the county where the alleged malpractice took place. The proposed change in this rule threatens to escalate an already critical physician shortage in Pennsylvania.
The venue rule was initially introduced to deter "venue shopping", a practice in which plaintiffs would file lawsuits in counties perceived to be more favorable to their cause, irrespective of where the supposed malpractice occurred. Before the rule, Philadelphia, known for its plaintiff-friendly juries and substantial verdicts, was a common choice for such lawsuits. This led to a malpractice insurance crisis, resulting in soaring premiums that forced many physicians to reduce services, leave the state, or retire prematurely.
The potential change in this rule has sparked fears of a return to the pre-2003 crisis. The Pennsylvania Medical Society and other stakeholders have voiced their concerns that this shift could lead to a dramatic increase in malpractice insurance premiums, pushing physicians, especially those in high-risk specialties like neurosurgery and obstetrics, out of Pennsylvania. This could further intensify the physician shortage in a state already grappling with an aging physician workforce and a rural population with limited access to healthcare services.
While some argue that the change would enhance patient rights, allowing those affected by medical negligence to seek justice in any county, the potential harm to Pennsylvania's healthcare system is severe. The state is already experiencing a significant physician shortage. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the U.S. could face a shortage of up to 139,000 physicians by 2033, and Pennsylvania, with its aging population and vast rural areas, is expected to be disproportionately affected.
The reversal in the venue rule also threatens to compromise the quality of healthcare services in the state. With fewer physicians, patients may face longer wait times for appointments, reduced access to specialty care, and increased travel times to receive medical care. This could particularly impact rural and underserved communities, exacerbating existing health disparities.
In conclusion, the repeal of the venue rule poses a significant threat to the healthcare system in Pennsylvania given its potential harm to the state's healthcare infrastructure and the accessibility of care for patients. The theoretical benefits to patients seeking justice in medical malpractice cases must be carefully balanced against the worrisome risk of exacerbating the physician shortage and widening health disparities in the state.