(DETROIT FREE PRESS) - A new Michigan law allows doctors to alert the Secretary of State if they think patients' medical conditions make them unsafe behind the wheel.
That may be a welcome change for Michigan families whose elderly loved ones should hang up the car keys.
"It's a big issue with the growing population of seniors," said Roberta Habowski, who connects seniors with transportation services through the Southfield-based Area Agency on Aging. "It's a difficult talk to have and not always well-received. How would you feel if I took away your car keys today?"
A doctor's ability to alert the state might ease the burden for some families, she said, and it can offer a sense of authority and objectivity to a senior who faces a loss of independence.
The new law is still little-known, overshadowed in the waning days of the lame-duck legislative session by controversies such as right-to-work and abortion.
It clarifies a doctor's responsibilities when faced with a patient who has vision loss, dementia or other age-related health problems that could threaten their driving, said Colin Ford, director of government relations for the Michigan State Medical Society, which lobbied for the change.
"You've got all these divergent responsibilities. You have patient confidentiality ... and the well-being of the patient and the safety of the public. The doctor was caught in the middle," Ford said.
Like laws in more than two dozen other states, Michigan's new law shields doctors from liability if something goes wrong on the road - whether the doctor reports the patient or not, said Dr. Marianna Spanaki, a neurologist at Henry Ford Health System. Spanaki, who works with epilepsy patients, lobbied for the law.
All this makes it legally clear that concern for public safety can outweigh patient privacy at times, she said.
"This protects the patients themselves, public safety and physicians," Spanaki said.
The Secretary of State receives about 400 requests a month to double check a driver's ability, said Fred Woodhams, spokesman for Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who supported the change.
About half of those requests come from law enforcement. Others include letters from family members and doctors.
The office most likely will see an increase in doctors' letters of concern as more doctors learn about the new law, Woodhams said.
Jim Elliott is furious, though.
The 79-year-old retired Warren teacher and diving coach received a letter in his mailbox recently from the Secretary of State's Office. A concern had been raised about his medical issues, according to the letter.
Elliott, who said he fell out of a tree last year while he was hunting and has been in and out of the hospital since then, was told to submit to a driver's test before he gets behind a wheel again.
His driving, he said, is fine.
"They're treating me like a criminal. I've never been drunk driving. I've never been driving with drugs. I don't have a history of tickets, and yet I'm treated in this manner," he said.
All this hinges, he said, on a tip from "somebody ... who called them up and said, 'You should check him out; he might be cuckoo.' "
Some wonder whether patients might be reluctant to be honest with their doctor if they worry that the information could be used to take away their license, said Arlene Gorelick, president of the Southfield-based Epilepsy Foundation of Michigan.
"On the other hand, the patient might not be complying with the physician and the physician feels there is a public risk," she said. "This is not an easy issue."
Still, the Epilepsy Foundation supported the concept of the bill, hoping that it also shields doctors from liability if they support a patient's driving ability. Some patients with past medical issues have asked doctors to attest they are healthy to drive, but doctors have refused because of liability concerns, Gorelick said.
Detroit Free Press