Thursday, July 5, 2012

First Amendment Right of Physicians and Their Patients Protected

Seth D. Kaplan, M.D., F.A.A.P.

I presented a resolution to the Texas Medical Association 2012 House of Delegates on behalf of the Texas Pediatric Society (TPS) asking TMA to oppose laws limiting the type of conversations physicians can have with their patients or patients’ parents. TMA overwhelmingly supported the resolution, which now is TMA policy.

This action was in response to legislation Florida passed in 2011 prohibiting physicians, nurses, and medical staff from asking patients and their parents about firearms. Florida’s law allowed a patient to report a physician for “harassment” if the patient felt the question was unnecessary, with potential disciplinary action against the physician by the Florida Board of Medicine.

The Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with other groups, sued to block the law. Recently, a federal court declared the law unconstitutional, saying it was a violation of physicians’ First Amendment rights to speak with their patients about gun safety.

Counseling patients about safety issues is one of the most important parts of my role as a primary care pediatrician. One of the main goals of working with my patients is to reduce the risk of injury to children in the environments in which they live and play. Thus, I spend time discussing potential problems related to seat belt use, tobacco exposure, storage of household chemicals, swimming, sun and playground safety, and more. Talking about firearm safety and storage is part of this conversation as well.

The answers I get to questions about firearms are fascinating. Many people say, “We don’t own guns, so we don’t worry about this.” When asked if they know if there are guns in the houses of children their kids play with and if their kids would know what to do if they saw a gun, they often answer, “I hadn’t thought about that.” Those who do have guns have a chance to talk about safe storage, and often have tips that I can pass on to other families, such as where parents can find good training courses for their kids, when appropriate.

I believe talking about gun safety and other safety-related issues is an important part of the preventive counseling I provide patients and their families. When the government tries to dictate what a physician and his or her patient can and cannot discuss in the confidential setting of an exam room, I no longer can perform the preventive aspects of pediatrics expected of me. Thus, I applaud the decision of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

To learn more, read the court’s decision.

Dr. Kaplan is a general pediatrician in Frisco, TX. He serves as the TPS alternate delegate to the TMA and is the incoming chair of the TPS Committee on Administration and Practice Management. Dr. Kaplan posts topics on Facebook at TLC Pediatrics of Frisco.

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