Vice Squad
Tuesday, August 17, 2004
Doctor or Informant?

Remember that fellow in Pennsylvania who lost his driver's license after he told his doctor that he drank more than a six-pack of beer per day? (The doctor probably felt compelled to bring his case to the license authorities, given state law, though the doctor later refused a request to clear him to drive.) He claimed only to drink at home after work, without driving afterwards. Anyway, the patient went to court to get his license reinstated, and the judge yesterday fashioned a compromise. The man can get his license reinstated, but only if he installs in his car an ignition locking system that will prevent him from driving unless he passes an in-car breath test. The locking device will cost about $1,000 per year, apparently.

I do worry about laws that require doctors to become informants, especially when there is no clear and present danger of a crime about to be committed. Patients will be even more likely to lie about their alcohol use, and the extent of alcohol consumption can be an important piece of information in determining a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

In Minneapolis, a hospital doctor refused to take a blood sample from a suspect arrested in a fatal stabbing. Police wanted a measurement of the suspect's blood-alcohol content. The doctor did not have the suspect's informed consent. The doctor also refused to take the sample following a phone call from a judge. The doctor was arrested, and the blood sample was eventually (5 hours after the initial "presentation") taken by another physician following the arrival of a signed court order. It now looks as if the arrested doctor will not suffer any further legal or administrative sanctions for his decision, which on the surface appears to have been in compliance with hospital guidelines.

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