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Helping patients at all costs

By Shaila Dani
Reprinted by permission from Bucks County Courier Times
Originally published in the April 30, 2005 edition

Liability issues won’t faze a new St. Mary Medical Center neurosurgeon.

He was born to do it. So a new neurosurgeon at a local hospital won’t allow a hostile national climate for high-risk doctors make him cynical about what he’s trained 15 years to do.

"I’m living my dream," said Dr. Mark McLaughlin, who came on board at St. Mary Medical Center in Middletown a few weeks ago. "It’s why I’m here on earth. I’m not going to let the liability issue scare me away."

Dr. Daniel Bursick, president of the Pennsylvania Neurosurgical Society, said state neurosurgeons typically pay from $80,000 to $240,000 annually for medical malpractice insurance. Ten years ago, between $50,000 and $60,000 was common, he said.

Pennsylvania medical malpractice insurance costs are higher than in many other states, said Bursick, though it’s a national problem that affects all doctors and especially obstetricians, neurosurgeons, emergency room physicians and other high-risk specialists.

The 39-year-old McLaughlin sat in a comfortable, high-backed chair in his new office at the hospital on a recent morning. He specializes in spine surgery and thinks the supportive chair is important for back health. The father of four who’s married to his college sweetheart said he’ll handle emergency room calls and high-risk procedures like brain tumor surgery in addition to spinal work.

Neurosurgeon shortage

A February article in the Journal of Neurosurgery on a study of neurosurgery workforce trends notes that national needs for neurosurgeons aren’t being met. Graphed data from the American Board of Neurological Surgeons indicates a dramatic decline in neurosurgeons since 1998.

The article also notes that some neurosurgeons are choosing "to exclude high-risk surgeries, focus on spine work, avoid emergency treatment, move practices to where the medical liability system is more stable, and retire early," in response to high medical malpractice insurance costs and frequent lawsuits.

"I don’t blame them, but I’m not going to be one of them," said McLaughlin, about doctors who are limiting their practices to reduce chances of being sued. He’s been sued twice so far, and does about 200 surgeries a year.

"If I see something I was trained well to do, I’ll do it," said the New Jersey resident. "If somebody’s going to sue me about that, it’s going to upset me, but I’m still going to do the right thing."

McLaughlin’s attitude is uncommon these days, said Bursick, who has about 150 neurosurgeons in his statewide organization.

"Get yourself sued two or three times," said Bursick, who practices at Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh. "You’ll change your tune. It’s a very personal dagger, right in the heart, for most doctors when they get sued."

He said he no longer sees worker’s compensation patients after being sued by one, and said he and his five colleagues recently decided to stop seeing pediatric patients because of liability risks.

"You can be sued on a newborn up to 18 years later," noted Bursick. Limits on neurosurgical services have a direct effect on patients, he said, in the form of longer waits for care, and sometimes more serious consequences. In the past couple of years in Chester County, critical trauma patients have died while being transported to faraway hospitals for emergency neurosurgeon care, said Bursick, who said neurosurgeons in Pennsylvania are mostly concentrated in cities, which is a problem for rural areas.

Common sense

Both Bursick and McLaughlin agree that caps on non-economic awards on malpractice suits are needed to check spiraling insurance costs. McLaughlin is sure the problem will be fixed because "common sense is going to prevail." Bursick is more skeptical.

"I don’t see any movement in our Legislature or on a national level to pass a cap," he said.

McLaughlin’s positive attitude and heartfelt interest in his chosen life’s work remains unaffected. He wanted to be a doctor from the age of 5, he said, and the University of Pittsburgh graduate believes Pennsylvania is a fine place to practice despite insurance and lawsuit issues. That was never a deterrent for him, he said.

"Nothing would have ever stopped me from becoming a doctor," said McLaughlin. "I wouldn’t discourage others from going into medicine."

Dr Mark McLaughlin

LastUpdate: 2016-06-03 09:00:57


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