John Kitzhaber, Governor of Oregon, has appointed a Patient Safety and Defensive Medicine Workgroup, and the organization is about to present the results of their study on what is being called a “safe harbor policy.” The workgroup was organized with the goal of determining how to reduce the costs of medical malpractice suits.

Made up of doctors, legislators, an executive in the health industry, a representative of the average public, and an injury attorney, the group has been working on the thorny problem of the extreme expense of medical suits in Oregon. The threat of these suits has led to a phenomenon many doctors derisively call “defensive medicine.” Defensive medicine is the practice of requesting additional procedures and tests that may not be necessary, just to protect the hospital against potential lawsuits for the doctors not doing everything in their power to ensure they had the correct diagnosis.

What the study is expected to lead to is safe harbor legislation. Basically, it consists of laws that provide physicians and hospitals protection or relief from liability in situations where negligence has potentially occurred. It is touted as opening up communication between doctors and patients without the potential risk of lawsuit. An example is a law stating that an apology for a mistake cannot then be used as evidence in a subsequent lawsuit, or offering an alternative such as a court-administered arbitration process instead of a lawsuit.

While there is no doubt that lawsuits can severely impact hospitals and doctors in providing patient care, there is very serious concern that safe harbor legislation can go too far. Patients who have suffered genuine harm as the result of medical malpractice or negligence should not be arbitrarily limited in their attempt to seek redress. An apology is a good and healing thing to hear, but it should not be considered sufficient payment for an improperly performed procedure. Hopefully this safe harbor legislation will not exclude patients and their rights of legitimate redress.