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State Warns Protesting Doctors

February 7, 1986

BOSTON (AP) _ A state medical board on Friday warned doctors protesting malpractice insurance rates that they must treat patients in life-threatening situations.

Meanwhile, a dozen protesting doctors at suburban Norwood Hospital announced they had agreed to go back to work because they were confident the Legislature would find a way to ease rate increases.

Since last Saturday, many Massachusetts orthopedists have refused to operate on patients in elective and emergency cases, and numerous obstetricians have refused to accept new patients to protest large retroactive increases in insurance rates announced last December.

″The board wants to remind patients and physicians that physicians, even when they are motivated by sincere feelings of frustration about the malpractice crisis, do not have a right to withhold treatment in emergency situations,″ Dr. Russell J. Rowell, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine, said in a statement.

″A medical emergency is defined as a set of circumstances which immediately threaten the person’s life or is likely to cause serious injury, absent the provisions of immediate professional assistance.″

The board has the power to revoke physicians’ licenses to practice.

There was no immediate comment from protesting doctors.

The board did not receive any complaints this week from patients who were denied care in a medical emergency, said a board spokeswoman who declined to be identified.

But since the doctors’ protest began, several orthopedic patients have been transferred to Boston hospitals unaffected by the protest after doctors at suburban hospitals refused to treat them.

Some were victims of automobile accidents, but spokesmen for the hospitals where they were denied treatment said the injuries were not life-threatening. Officials at Boston hospitals said they could not determine exactly how many of the orthopedic patients they received this week as transfers had been denied treatment elsewhere.

″We’re not going to ask them the circumstances under which they’ve come in,″ said Leslie Fuhrer, spokeswoman for New England Medical Center.

She said her hospital received eight orthopedic patients since Saturday. While that was a higher number than normal, she said the hospital often receives transferred patients requiring orthopedic surgery.

Protesting doctors at Norwood Hospital announced they had decided to go back to work because they were confident the Legislature and Gov. Michael S. Dukakis could devise a way to ease the insurance rate increases before premium payments are due April 15, said hospital spokeswoman Sandra Gandsman.

″Failure to act before April 15 will result in these physicians permanently changing their medical practice patterns to lower risk levels for economic reasons,″Ms. Gandsman read in a statement she said was approved by the eight orthopedists, two neurosurgeons and two thoracic surgeons. Protesting obstetricians at the hospital continued to refuse to accept new patients, she said.

The doctors’ protest has been limited to suburban Boston and to hospitals in communities north and south of the metropolitan area, including Cape Cod, according to the Massachusetts Hospital Association.

Few protesting doctors were found in central and western Massachusetts, according to a survey by the association.

The majority of protesting doctors were orthopedists and obstetricians, the association said.

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