Massachusetts Medical Society: Physicians Target Gun Safety on 25th National Doctor’s Day

Physicians Target Gun Safety on 25th National Doctor’s Day


Contact: Richard Gulla

Florida Law Restricts Physician-Patient Conversation

Waltham, Mass. – March 12, 2015  – President George Bush first proclaimed March 30 National Doctor’s Day in 1991 as a time to honor the contributions of physicians to the health of America, yet this year, on the 25thanniversary of the day, the 24,000 members of the Massachusetts Medical Society and its 20 district medical societies across the Commonwealth are taking the day to raise awareness about gun safety, and specifically, the right of physicians to discuss the subject with their patients.  

The physicians are calling attention to a 2011 Florida law that made it illegal for physicians in that state to ask patients if they own a gun. Later struck down when physicians sued, the law was upheld by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit , who declared that the law regulates physician conduct “to protect patient privacy and curtail abuses of the physician-patient relationship.” Florida physicians have petitioned for a rehearing, and if the circuit court’s decision is upheld, similar laws now pending in nearly a dozen other states are likely to be passed.     

Physician leaders here and across the country are staunchly opposed to such interference in the physician-patient relationship and believe they not only have the right but also the duty to discuss openly and freely with their patients any topic that can affect their health.   

The physicians believe it’s their responsibility to ask their patients about the health risks of topics such as drinking, smoking, eating habits, and sexual activity. Guns in the home, they say, like those other topics, pose risks to patients and those around them and should not be off limits.  

“Gun violence has become a public health problem,’” says Dr. Pieters, “and physicians can play an important role in promoting gun safety by discussing it with their patients in the privacy and confidentiality of the physician-patient relationship. Preventing doctors from talking about this undermines both personal and public health and safety. Discussing it openly can prevent injury and death.”

The physicians also point to the sheer number of firearms, estimated to be anywhere from 100 to 300 million , as another reason to be actively involved in discussing gun safety with patients. In Massachusetts alone, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has registered nearly 33,000 weapons as of March 2014.  

Research also supports the physicians’ assertion that guns can be considered a significant health risk, particularly for young people.  Statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, as reported by the Brady Campaign, show that more than 2,600 children and teens up to 19 years of age die from gun violence in an average year. Additional research shows that firearm violence is among the leading causes of death for teenagers and young adults .  

“We need look no further than to Columbine, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut,” said Dr. Pieters, “to show us the impact of gun violence on our young people, but somehow we’re not paying enough attention.  Amazingly, since the shootings at Sandy Hook in Connecticut in 2012, there have been 104 additional school shootings in America – 59 of them in grades K through 12.”  

Physicians want to be part of the solution and are in a unique position to help, but interfering in the physician-patient relationship by restricting discussion blocks them from doing so.

“Physicians should be allowed to practice to the fullest of their capabilities,” said Dr. Pieters. “Restraints on conversations in the privacy and confidentiality of the physician-patient relationship only prevent physicians from practicing good medicine and denies patients the care they deserve.” 

The Massachusetts Medical Society, with more than 24,000 physicians and student members, is dedicated to educating and advocating for the patients and physicians of Massachusetts. The Society, under the auspices of NEJM Group, publishes the New England Journal of Medicine, a leading global medical journal and web site, and NEJM Journal Watch alerts and publications covering 13 specialties. The Society is also a leader in continuing medical education for health care professionals throughout Massachusetts, conducting a variety of medical education programs for physicians and health care professionals. Founded in 1781, MMS is the oldest continuously operating medical society in the country.

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