To protect and serve: Psychiatrists’ duty to patients
Patient discharged from group therapy kills psychiatrist, patient, and himself
Oakland County (MI) Circuit Court
The plaintiff, age 57, attended regular group therapy with a psychiatrist. Another patient, Mr. B, was dismissed from group therapy by the psychiatrist, but returned to the office with a gun during one of the regular sessions. Mr. B shot and killed the psychiatrist then entered the group meeting room and discharged his gun, fatally injuring another patient and wounding the plaintiff. Mr. B then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. The plaintiff suffered gunshot wounds to the lower leg, foot, and hand and was away from work for 6 weeks.
The plaintiff alleged that the psychiatrist, his associates, and his daughter—who is also a psychiatrist at the office—knew Mr. B was dangerous and should not have been included in group therapy. The plaintiff claimed that Mr. B had a history of questionable psychotic behavior and other patients should not have been exposed to him. The psychiatrist’s associates contended that they had no way to anticipate this event and had used due care and caution in their practice.
- A $2 million verdict was returned
Dr. Grant’s observations
Warn and protect
In this case, several unavailable facts may have supported the successful negligence claim. For example, why was Mr. B dismissed from the group? Did he threaten someone in the group? Did he tell the group or the group leader about thoughts of violence or homicide? If so, perhaps a violent event was foreseeable.
Was Mr. B dismissed because of delusional or paranoid thoughts? What was done to help him, and were appropriate referrals in place? Instituting the right interventions requires clinicians to walk a fine line between preserving doctor-patient confidentiality and protecting other patients and the general public.
Doctor-patient confidentiality is deeply rooted in medical ethics and protected by law—in various forms—in all jurisdictions. Directives requiring a physician to reveal information without a patient’s consent are either legislated—and tend to be clear—or are based on court precedent, which is more open to interpretation. These mandated exceptions are purpose-specific and intended to preserve overall doctor-patient confidentiality.“Is this patient dangerous?” by John Battaglia, MD, and “Protect yourself from patient assault”, an interview between Dr. Battaglia and Lois E. Krahn, MD.
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