A rare rehearing has been granted for a case that could have significant ramifications for the patient-physician relationship. The outcome physicians are hoping for: That the court will overturn a state law that limits which health and safety topics physicians can talk about with their patients in the exam room.

The 11th Circuit Court has granted a rare rehearing to decide whether a state can bar physicians from communicating freely with their patients and their families about firearm safety. Providing this kind of safety counseling can help prevent gun-related injuries and deaths, particularly among children.

Physician groups in 2014 filed a brief in support of a formal petition for the rehearing of a precedent-setting case in which a federal appellate court had issued a split-decision that upheld a controversial Florida law that bars physicians from freely discussing firearm safety with their patients.

While one of the judges on the three-person panel sided strongly with physicians in opposing the law, the two other judges ruled in favor of the state. The rehearing will be held en banc, meaning all 11 active judges will sit on the panel for decision.

The AMA and several other medical associations last month filed an amicus brief in support of the rehearing. “The discussions physicians have with their patients do not threaten those patients’ right of gun ownership,” the brief (log in) said. “The Second Amendment protects citizens against governmental confiscation of their firearms. Physicians neither confiscate nor facilitate anyone else’s confiscation of firearms—nor is it likely that they could or would do so.”

“This case,” the brief said, “affects the right of patients to be given the best possible medical care from their physicians—and not just on the topic of firearm safety.”

The nine medical associations that asked for the rehearing have highlighted the “exceptional importance of this case.” The ruling not only has direct negative consequences on the practice of medicine in Florida but also sets a precedent that could encourage other state lawmakers to proceed with legislation that similarly would restrict physicians’ conversations with their patients about health and safety.

Learn more about other cases in which the AMA defended physicians and patients in the nation’s courts.

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