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Letter from Utah Medical Association President Regarding Dr. Robert Weitzel

March 2002

Thank you for your letter regarding your concerns over the case of Dr. Robert Weitzel as presented by the 60 Minutes report and on the weitzelcharts.com website.

Your remarks are consistent with the feelings of a few others who have written similar letters. There are, however, other physicians who feel as strongly as you do but reach a different conclusion about the merits of defending Dr. Weitzel.

As the leadership of the UMA, our charge is to protect and enhance the well-being of patients and to be stewards over the interests of medicine in a manner that is consistent with the feelings and views of our overall membership. The direction of the UMA is not dictated by any one person, but is set through a deliberative process consisting of the House of Delegates, the Board of Trustees, and the Executive Committee.

Currently, our policymaking bodies have decided to focus our efforts on the systemic issues that have arisen from the Weitzel case. We have, for example, established a Blue Ribbon Task Force to investigate and seek clarification of the seemingly fuzzy boundaries between appropriate pain control, malpractice and alleged criminal negligence. We will continue our work with the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing and with state prosecutors to make sure that medical mistakes are treated as mistakes and not as crimes. And we are anxious to educate physicians about the outcomes of all these efforts. We are also concerned about the future of a physician's ability and willingness to treat pain appropriately and adequately, particularly at the end of life.

As an organization, UMA continues to encourage active debate and to promote physician education surrounding the issues of pain control and End-of-Life care. UMA helped form the Coalition to Improve End-of-Life Care and continues to support the coalition's efforts. We continue to encourage all physicians to provide adequate pain control for their patients in pain, regardless of the outcome of Dr. Weitzel's trial.

Some have tried to characterize this case as a bellwether of coming prosecutions of any physician who tries to treat pain. UMA, however, has seen no credible evidence to indicate a witch hunt is in progress against physicians involved in pain control or end-of-life care. Thousands of patients are daily treated with narcotics for legitimate pain control and we have seen no reports that their physicians are being harassed by the state. UMA views the prosecution of Dr. Weitzel as an aberration, rather than a trend. But we'll keep watching.

In the end, we remain hopeful that justice will be achieved in Dr. Weitzel's case, which is as much as anyone can do from a practical standpoint once a case goes to court. The inability of private individuals and organizations to influence the outcome of a pending case is the primary difference between the political arena and the judicial system. Consequently, we understand the need to work on systemic issues in the political arena in order to keep bad results out of the judicial system.

That's where we stand.

James R. Fowler, M.D.
Utah Medical Association