Freedom of patient-physician conversations hinges on federal court case

Michael Winters , Contributing News Writer

A federal court will be hearing a case about the constitutionality of a state law that represses free discussion between physicians and patients regarding health and safety issues.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed April 26, the AMA and eight other medical societies urged the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit to overturn a Florida law that restricts physicians from discussing firearm safety with patients and their families.

The brief argues that the Firearm Owners’ Privacy Act is unconstitutional and intrudes on the practice of medicine. The law will inevitably affect other aspects of patient care, the brief says.

In 2012 the district court had found the 2011 law unconstitutional. In 2014 a court of appeals panel of three judges issued a split decision. While one judge sided strongly with physicians opposing the law, the other two ruled in favor of the state. Physician groups and others sought a rehearing.

In a rare decision, the full court of appeals agreed to rehear the case. The rehearing will be held before the court en banc—all 11 active judges are to hear the case. Oral arguments are scheduled for June 21 in Atlanta.

In its April 26 briefing, the AMA and other organizations call the law an example of politics overriding medicine. It has already led Florida physicians to self-censor when talking with patients, the brief says.

“It is censorship, imposed for purely political motives,” it says.

The law directly clashes with a consensus on care that dates to at least 1989. That year, the AMA enacted a policy that encourages members to inquire into the presence of firearms in households and to promote the use of safety locks on guns in an effort to reduce injuries to children.

“Effective medical care requires unfettered communications between physicians and their patients,” the brief tells the court.

Other recent cases in which the AMA has been involved