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Looking at the legal wrinkles in medicine

Medical students need to absorb more than just scientific facts to become effective doctors. A DMS fourth-year course called Health, Society, and the Physician emphasizes the social context in which medicine is embedded. One recent lecturer in the course was someone the soon-to-be-doctors might have pegged as an adversary—a health-care lawyer.

But Lee Dunn (at left in the photo above), who practices in Boston, emphasizes that "there's no element in the law that makes doctors more vulnerable [than] any other licensed professional." Students may envision "beady-eyed plaintiffs' lawyers waiting for them, [but] that simply isn't true."

Nonetheless, medical students need to learn certain essentials of the law, Dunn maintains. He structures his lessons around the doctor-patient relationship, exploring its inception and pointing out common issues that may arise within its context. Students are usually most interested, Dunn says, in questions about treatment consent, such as how to get consent for minors or for adults unable to give consent themselves. "Except in rare instances," Dunn explains, "just because someone is sick does not change his legal rights. He has a right not to be touched, treated, or in any way have his life changed simply because he is ill."

But this attorney's fundamental advice is almost folk wisdom: "Treat your patients in the way you would like to be treated." Dunn points out to the students that caring doctors are much less likely to be sued.

Students also commonly wonder about their legal responsibilities during residency. "I try to give them a series of little red warning lights," Dunn concludes. "All I really want is . . . when they're doing something, they'll say, 'Oh, boy, didn't that lawyer say there could be a problem here?' To consider the fact that the problem is not simply medical—that there are a number of different aspects to it."


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