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February 1, 2012

If hospitals refer patients to lawyers, is it a conflict of interest?

Daily Briefing

Some Maryland hospitals—in an effort to avoid protracted legal battles—recommend attorneys to patients with malpractice concerns, but some experts argue that it is a conflict of interest.

According to the Baltimore Sun, several medical systems in Maryland maintain lists of vetted lawyers who will agree to take patient cases for reduced fees, generally with the expectation of a quick settlement. They sometimes refer lawyers from these lists to patients with possible malpractice claims.

Some experts say the referral system presents an inherent conflict of interest because lawyers on the list may feel beholden to the hospitals that recommend them. "The first question I would have if I were the patient is: 'Would I even want to get a referral from a hospital?'" says former American Health Lawyers Association President S. Allan Adelman, adding, "I think the whole relationship is tainted."

The Lawyers Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit attorneys from letting a referral source "direct or regulate [their] professional judgment." Baltimore attorney T. Christine Pham, who chairs the Maryland State Bar Association's ethics committee, notes that "[j]ust because it's a hospital referring him, [the lawyer] is not going to give the hospital a break."

Participating attorneys and hospitals say the system aims to help injured patients and loved ones avoid prolonged, draining litigation. A study published in 2005 found that such legal battles can last three to five years and often generate bad feelings for both the patient and provider.

"By approaching the patient and their family early, it is our hope that if compensation is appropriate, we can get that in the hands of the patient and their family when they need it: immediately," says MedStar Health, which recommends "a small number of very seasoned, highly-respected lawyers in the community who have impeccable reputations for being fair and honest."  

The hospital system notes that "if the injury and the financial consequences of that injury are significant, we are much more comfortable knowing that the patient and their family has received independent outside legal counsel to help them make their decisions regarding resolution" (Bishop, Sun, 1/28).

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