By raising docs' risk of getting sued, court ruling could worsen mental healthcare

Lawsuit document
A ruling by the Florida Supreme Court puts physicians at greater risk of being sued after a patient's suicide. Image: Getty/eccolo74

A Florida Supreme Court ruling that exposes primary care physicians to greater malpractice risk could end up leading to worse care for patients who are at risk for suicide, a mental health expert says.

In August, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the legal protection that prevents physicians from being held liable for “unforeseeable” suicides does not prevent malpractice lawsuits that accused doctors of failing to deliver an “applicable standard of care.” The consequences of that ruling could put physicians at risk beyond the state of Florida, Jeanine Joy, Ph.D., CEO of Happiness 1st Institute, writes in Physicians Practice.

“Mental healthcare does not receive the attention or resources needed to provide needed care to Americans,” Joy writes. That often leads family physicians to provide mental healthcare to their patients despite being relatively poorly equipped to do so. If physicians refused to treat mental health issues, however, the already sizeable unmet need for mental healthcare would be larger, according to Joy.

This dynamic raises the stakes on the Florida ruling, because it exposes physicians—many of whom suffer from burnout simply trying to keep pace with running a practice—to risk if a patient under their care commits suicide. For doctors who decide the risk is too great, or that they don’t have the bandwidth to keep up with the latest best practices in psychology in addition to their own specialty areas, the obvious solution would be to refer a patient with a mental health issue to a specialist.

The problem is, roughly half the patients who receive referrals for mental healthcare fail to follow through, according to Joy, who cites the stigma attached to mental health issues as a primary barrier to care. Primary care providers face less resistance when diagnosing and treating such disorders, she says, and that means an incentive to refer patients may protect doctors from lawsuits, but it’s also likely to put patients at increased risk.