What’s more important— a patient’s right to privacy or public safety? That’s the buzz question after a new Michigan law was passed allowing doctors to turn in patients who they think are unsafe to drive.
The law gives doctors discretion to report a patient to the Secretary of State if they think the person should no longer be behind the wheel because of medical issues. The law, which passed quietly through legislation, protects doctors from liability whether or not they choose to report a patient even if the person causes a car accident due to their health problems.
While the law is also intended to protect elderly drivers and the community, it could impinge upon a person’s privacy rights. It’s a controversial issue: whether to protect public safety or a patient’s right to privacy. Sharing information with a doctor could have negative consequences for a person who wants to continue to drive. Will a patient withhold medical information for fear they’ll be scrutinized as a safe driver? It could create a chilling effect because patients won’t discuss important medical concerns with their doctors because of the ramifications.
However, taking the keys away from an unsafe elderly driver may be a matter of public responsibility. Older drivers after the age of 75 have a higher risk of being involved in a car accident for every mile they drive and the rate of fatalities after the age of 75 rises sharply. Families often have difficulty with taking the keys away from a loved one and doctors can have a lot of influence on elderly drivers. A doctor’s sense of authority and objectivity can help seniors understand the reality of the situation that they may not want to hear from families.
But does the new law give too much authority to doctors? How much of a ‘big brother’ effect does this create? Where is the balance between patient privacy and public safety? It’s a slippery slope. This law moves the conversation beyond being a family issue– where families were the ones left to decide whether or not to take the keys away from an elderly loved one. Now doctors have the discretion to report a person as well.