Why physicians need COVID-19-related medical liability protections

Tanya Albert Henry , Contributing News Writer

What's the news: The AMA joined more than 130 state, specialty and national medical associations in a letter to congressional leaders that strongly encourages lawmakers to include “targeted and limited liability protections” for physicians” in the bipartisan Coronavirus Provider Protection Act (H.R. 7059).

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It is not a call for blanket legal immunity. Instead, the AMA and others are asking Congress to protect physicians and other health professionals from medical liability lawsuits where health care services are provided or withheld in situations that may be beyond the control of physicians or health care facilities. For example, situations in which a physician was following government guidelines or lacked resources due to COVID-19. The protections would extend to those who provide care in good faith during the public health emergency and in a reasonable time period, such as 60 days, after the emergency declaration ends.

The protections would not apply when gross negligence or willful misconduct are involved.

Why it's important: The bill comes in the wake of unparalleled circumstances that have led to physicians and other health care professionals to make critical medical decisions based on changing directives and guidance and put their own lives at risk daily during this emergency because of medical supply and safety equipment shortages.

Without legislative protection, physicians and other health care professionals face the threat of years of costly litigation tied to the extraordinary circumstances under which they are providing care to patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Physicians face the threat of emotionally and financially draining medical liability lawsuits from circumstances beyond their control. Among the unprecedented challenges physicians have faced that could lead to lawsuits months—or even years—after the pandemic is over include:

  • Suspending elective, in-person visits and procedures.
  • Being assigned to provide care outside the physician’s general practice area.
  • Rationing care because of equipment shortages, including ventilators.
  • Encountering inadequate testing that could lead to delayed or inaccurate diagnosis.
  • Delaying treatment for patients with conditions other than COVID-19.

The organizations that signed the June 9 letter addressed to congressional leaders from both parties represent hundreds of thousands of front-line medical and mental health physicians who are diagnosing, testing, treating and counseling millions of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“As physicians and other health care professionals and the facilities in which they provide their services continue their heroic efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 while caring for COVID-19 patients as well as meeting the needs of other patients, they will remain vulnerable to the threat of unwarranted and unfair lawsuits,” says the joint letter to congressional leaders. “We therefore strongly urge Congress to consider targeted and limited liability protections for physicians and other health care professionals and the facilities in which they practice as they continue their efforts to treat COVID-19 under unprecedented conditions.”

Learn more: Stay up to speed on the AMA’s COVID-19 advocacy efforts and track the fast-moving pandemic with the AMA's COVID-19 resource center, which offers a library of the most up-to-date resources from JAMA Network™, the CDC, and the World Health Organization. 

Find out how, in the COVID-19 crisis, the AMA’s powerful voice has rung out to save lives.