Medical Malpractice Law: Med-Mal Over The Internet

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Laws governing medical malpractice address professional negligence through act or omission by a health-care provider, in which the treatment provided falls below the accepted standard of practice in the medical community and causes harm to the patient. By and large, these laws were enacted with traditional medicine in mind.

Consequently, malpractice involving medical error is evaluated by standards and regulations related to traditional medicine. The risk of applying traditional standards to e-health transactions is both finding medical malpractice when none exists and failure to find medical malpractice when appropriate.

Generally, e-health is the application of medicine via the Internet. The Internet, as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court, is an international network of interconnected computers. Thus, combining this definition with the practice of medicine, suggests that e-health, and hence e-malpractice, would cover medical professional errors related to any health services and information delivered or enhanced through the Internet and related technologies.

From a medical service provider's perspective, e-health is simply the use of the Internet to communicate with patients. Typically, e-health providers have established email exchanges where a visitor to the website can submit questions to medical professionals and have these questions answered.

Since these e-health transactions have been analogized to medical call centers, and medical call centers have been the subject of medical malpractice litigation for years, the courts have significant experience to draw upon. Accordingly, courts are likely to apply to e-health transactions the standards and regulations that are designed to address traditional medical malpractice, and that are currently applied to call centers.

However, the analogy is somewhat faulty. The chief difference is the technology upon which each transaction is based. A medical call-center nurse interacts with a patient via telephone to evaluate symptoms. An e-health medical service provider interacts with a patient via computer to evaluate symptoms.

A traditional call-center medical provider has more opportunity to identify a patient due to phone ID services and by listening to the caller, than an e-health medical service provider has by reading text or looking at a photo of a wound. Arguably, such differences enable a traditional call-center medical provider to be better able to reduce errors associated with erroneous identification than an e-health service provider counterpart. For example, a traditional call-center medical provider can generally differentiate the voice of a female child from an octogenarian male, and ameliorate malpractice related activity.

Other differences exist between a traditional call center and an e-health service provider, including the fact that a typical traditional call-center transaction involves a single jurisdiction, whereas a typical e-health transaction involves more than one jurisdiction.

Jurisdictional variance with respect to the acts necessary to give rise to medical malpractice is problematic when applying traditional call-center standards to e-health transactions. While traditional medical call centers are usually located in the same jurisdiction as the patients they serve, hence making only one jurisdiction relevant, the patient and doctor engaging in an e-health transaction are regularly in different jurisdictions. Such a potential difference renders less valuable the application of traditional medical call-center cases and standards to e-health transactions.

The applicability of more than one jurisdiction is also a significant consideration because the establishment of a physician-patient relationship varies by jurisdiction. The existence of this relationship mandates the duty of care due the patient, and is essential for the determination of medical malpractice. In e-health medical service transactions that involve multiple jurisdictions, there is a question of which jurisdiction would be applicable.

Patient-Doctor Relationship?

Just as medical malpractice standards are jurisdictionally specific, so too are defenses against medical malpractice liability. The initial, and perhaps most important, determination will be whether or not a physician-patient relationship is formed during a cyber-consultation. It is generally accepted that a physician-patient relationship must be in effect in order give rise to a malpractice claim. Since the creation of a physician-patient relationship may either be established by an explicit contract or may be implied in fact, an Internet medical health provider who seeks to avoid medical malpractice liability may do so by an Internet contractual agreement with a patient, which states that no physician-patient relationship is established.

The fact that the physician does not deal directly with the patient does not rule out a physician-patient relationship. See St. John v. Pope, 901 S.W.2d 420, 424 (Tex. App. 1995). Consequently, an Internet medical service provider should not rely on the proposition that a physician-patient relationship cannot exist in the absence of the physician-patient meeting, and should take action, such as the execution of an explicit agreement, to ameliorate or prevent a court from find such a relationship and, in turn, finding medical malpractice.

In addition to contractual barriers to medical malpractice legal difficulties, business or procedural barriers may be contracted by e-medical service providers. It is likely that a physician who consults with another physician via the Internet will not be deemed to have established a physician-patient relationship with the patient. Thus, if an e-health system involves the patient's traditional doctor, it is less likely that a court will find a physician-patient relationship, and in turn, find medical malpractice.

The nature of e-heath is such that it promotes consultations between two physicians and facilitates this consultation by allowing patient information such as medical charts and tests, and even live video of the patient to be transferred instantaneously to the consulting physician. Consultations between physicians via telephone, which is a form of e-health consultation, have been conducted for decades, and have generally resulted in the finding that a physician-patient relationship was not created. In Lopez v. Aziz, 852 S.W.2d 303 (1993), an obstetrician was consulted once by telephone by the primary care physician responsible for a pregnant woman. The court ruled that a physician-patient relationship was not formed between Dr. Salar Akhtar Aziz and the plaintiff because Aziz did not "conduct any laboratory tests or review the result of any laboratory tests, did not prepare any reports, and did not bill the plaintiff or the primary care physician."

Thus, it may be concluded that an e-health transaction is not an equivalent of laboratory tests, does not result in the review of any laboratory tests, does not result in the preparation of any reports, does not result in a bill to the patient of another physician and cannot give rise to a successful medical malpractice claim. Regrettably, this bright-line test assumes that a telephone consultation and a consultation performed via an e-health system are sufficiently similar.

Phone V. Internet

However, major differences exist between telephone and Internet consultations. During a telephone consultation, the consulted physician is made aware only of the facts that the consulting physician relays, and the consulted physician never sees the patient. During an Internet medical transaction, the consulted physician could have the patient's entire medical history, including test results, X-rays and scans, and the consulted physician may have the opportunity to interact with the patient.

Existing e-health systems can allow a consulted physician to become fully informed about a patient's status in order to provide a more educated medical opinion, thus giving rise to a physician-patient relationship. Traditional standards and regulation would find a physician-patient relationship if most of the following facts were present: the physician and the patient actually see each other, an examination takes place, the physician has access to the patient's medical record and the consulted physician collects a fee for the consultation.

Courts have found physician-patient relationships in the most casual circumstances. In Wilson v. Teng, 786 So.2d 485 (2000), a physician who had a previous relationship with a patient may have had a duty to the patient when they encountered each other in the emergency room and simply socialized. This case shows a court can find a physician-patient relationship due to any transaction. However, it is more likely this case stands for the proposition that once a physician-patient relationship is created, it carries through to other interactions. But it is unlikely that a new physician-patient relationship will arise from an Internet posting, even if a consultation fee is paid.

One of the potential uses of the Internet for e-health is as a medical call center. Just as a traditional form of the medical call center is the telephone number where patients can call and receive triage advice (i.e., whether to seek more help or not), an e-medical call center allows patients to communicate via the Internet to receive triage advice.

For example, a patient might take a photo of a skin ailment, send it to an online center, and the e-call center would allow the patient to receive triage advice. This "Internet triage" creates the same type of liability concern as the telephone medical call center. In particular, the liability risk is that the medical service provider will misdiagnose, which could result in a potential medical emergency being deemed a nonemergency. As suggested above, it is likely that an e-medical call center will be treated the same as telephone medical call centers in terms of liability. Since telephone medical-call- center transactions have been the subject of litigation, it is useful to examine these cases.

The courts in Shannon v. McNulty, 718 A. 2d 828 (1998), and Crum v. Health Alliance-Midwest, 47 F.Supp.2d 1013 (1999), each found that a medical call center service provider had a duty to its patients to oversee the triage phone line and to ensure that the service providers acted in a medically reasonable manner. Failure to do so resulted in a breach of duty and subjected the providers to both vicarious and corporate liability.

Potential malpractice claims exist in the marketing practices of e-health sites, via indirect or vicarious liability. Liability may be imposed on e-medical providers using marketing techniques that hold themselves out to the public as offering and rendering quality health-care services. To avoid this outcome, an e-medical provider may give notice to the contrary and have the site users confirm this understanding.

Several cases have held health-care providers responsible for malpractice committed by on-staff physicians at their hospital. These courts used the doctrine of agency by estoppel to hold health-care organizations liable for their nonemployee staff, because the health-care organizations advertised the quality of their health-care services, which the plaintiffs relied upon.

As e-health providers increasingly utilize the Internet to advertise the quality of services provided by their facilities, continue to promote their physicians by providing links to physicians' personal websites and continue to offer highly individualized medical services via the Internet, the risk of vicarious liability increases dramatically.

However, medical malpractice liability for an e-health service provider, who produces information provided to consumers on such medical information websites is not likely to be, nor should it be, held liable. This finding is based on the fact that Internet information services are analogous to print media, thus benefitting from a very high level of constitutional protection. •

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