State lawmakers are moving to keep patients injured by medical students from being able to sue them.
But proponents said that won't leave victims without recourse.
SB1429, awaiting full Senate action, would spell out that students are not liable for malpractice if they are under the supervision of a licensed health care professional. The only way a student could be sued would be if a patient could prove by clear and convincing evidence that the student acted with gross negligence.
Kelsey Lundy, lobbyist for Midwestern University, said that, at one time, students were never named in lawsuits. But she said her school, which trains osteopaths, has had four of these suits in the last five years.
Lundy said even if the students ultimately are dismissed from the lawsuit, the college incurs costs defending them.
The proposal drew criticism from Jon Hinz. He lobbies for Fairness and Accountability in Insurance Reform, a group that gets much of its funds from the Arizona Trial Lawyers Association, made up of attorneys who represent patients and accident victims.
Hinz said there is no reason to grant immunity to someone actually providing health care, as opposed to just studying. More to the point, he argued that immunity potentially provokes irresponsibility.
"There's a very big difference between looking at a book and learning and checking it on the computer screen, and then someone maybe being assigned who is not totally prepared to suture or to give injections," he said. "I know I'm going to be a little more concerned when I have my child and my family and we go in."
But Barry Halpern, a lawyer who represents Midwestern in lawsuits, said that is not representing what really happens.
He cited one case involving a physician assistant who was given the task of taking a patient's history at a facility that screens mental health patients. That history, Halpern said, was supervised and countersigned by the supervising physician.
Halpern said the patient of that doctor was discharged and later involved in a crime, convicted, and is now suing Midwestern, all of the licensed practitioners who had any involvement with her -- and the students "who had no authority to discharge her, no authority to order prescriptions, no authority to do anything."
The downside for the student, Halpern said, is that merely being named a defendant in a malpractice lawsuit follows that person around. He said it can make it more difficult to get a job and make malpractice coverage less affordable.
And then, he said, is the cost to the school.
"One of these suits diverts tens of thousands of dollars in defending a student who has no business in the case in the beginning," Halpern said.
Anyway, he said, it's not like there would be no remedy for a patient in a case like this. He said any responsibility would be borne by the supervising doctor and the doctor's employer.
And Halpern said there would be liability if the supervising physician if that person did not properly oversee the taking of the medical history -- as should occur when dealing with a student -- but instead treated the history as if it had been taken by a doctor.
That assurance did not totally satisfy Sen. Paula Aboud, D-Tucson. She wants some specific language in the final version of the legislation that spells out clearly that the supervising doctor remains liable for any malpractice that might be attributable to a student.