Doctors show little patience

September 30, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

Washington County surgeons have announced they will engage in a work slowdown to protest rising insurance rates, and since I am a friend of the common working man, I am announcing that I will engage in a sympathy work slowdown myself.

This could prove to be a difficult trick, since considering my typical pace, any slowdown would be tantamount to putting air brakes on an earthworm. But I am nothing if not determined, so from here on in my jokes will not be as snappy until the Maryland General Assembly passes tort reform.

The difference, of course, is that if my jokes fail to produce any chuckles, I cannot be sued for $284 million, therefore it is not as yet necessary for me to carry any malwisecrack insurance. On the other hand, if a doctor leaves a sponge in your colon, you've just won your own private island in the Caribbean.


Makes you wonder how many people go into surgery secretly wishing that a little something will go wrong. Not catastrophically, mind you, but just enough to bring a tear to a juror's eye. Is it worth a huge cash settlement to walk around with a pair of forceps in your chest cavity for the rest of your life? Maybe so.

I've had surgery exactly once and it Did Not Go Well. I know for a fact that one call to an attorney and one photograph and you wouldn't be reading this because I would be sitting on an island. Problem is, the doctor had told me to stay off my feet for two days which, given my respect for authority figures, I went out of my way not to do. But there's not a day goes by that I don't grieve that, save for one small, cobwebbed snippet of a conscience, I would have hit it big.

Of course, I wouldn't have had any problem finding a lawyer, because they never seem to engage in a work slowdown. If they're ticked about something, they engage in a work speedup.

I know doctors think they're the bad guys, but I have trouble getting mad at lawyers because, as a group, they're a lot more fun. Perhaps because they deal with life and death, doctors are more serious and intense. Most lawyers have a good sense of humor. Yes, if my life is on the line I want a doctor; but if happy hour is on the line, give me a lawyer any day.

The doctors must sense this, because they've agreed to spend up to $100,000 on a public relations firm to "educate the public" and lawmakers about the need for caps on lawsuits. They authorized the money, the paper said, "at a quarterly business meeting at the Fountain Head Country Club."

This is exactly why the doctors need a public relations firm. If you're trying to convince the public that you can't afford to stay in business, stop driving the Mercedes with the vanity plates and stop holding your business meetings at the golf course. First thing the PR dude should tell them is to start holding their business meetings at Waffle House.

Now obviously, if you save lives for a living, no one is going to begrudge you a salary that is one-fifteenth of the average chump toting a stick of lumber around a baseball diamond six months out of the year.

But the public sees it this way: True, some doctors pay more in malpractice premiums in a year than the average Washington Countian earns. But as a percent of annual salary, it's probably no more than a convenience store clerk with a couple of speeding tickets paying for automobile insurance.

What the PR firm really needs to tell the public is this: No way should a qualified doctor doing the best job he can be on the hook for hundreds of millions if everything doesn't go perfectly. That would be like me having to pay $2,000 for every typo, not to give our executive editor any ideas.

So I sympathize with the doctors and I like the lawyers. This leaves me to do what the average American does, which is heap your wrath on the group from which you know the fewest individuals - in this case the health insurance companies. I have never had a bad experience with car or property insurers, and conversely I've never had a good experience with a health insurer.

As I understand it, which is to say not much, the insurance companies were investing their premium money in stocks, which was fine in the '90s, but not so fine ever since. When you put a significant amount of your stack on red (or Enron) you can either make a bundle in profits or go broke, forcing you to, in this case, raise premiums to recoup your losses.

Of course, it's all a matter of Big Money to all three sides, a lot of which is going to be spent on a pending Annapolis power struggle. In affairs such as this, there can only be one true winner and, call me Nostradamus if you must, but I can sit here today and predict which group is going to win and win big: The lobbyists.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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