Trolling for patients

By Aaron Diamant

It's not the aches or pains, or the cracks and dents that won't go away for many car accident victims. It's the seemingly endless phone calls from telemarketers. Target Five investigates who's trolling for patients and how you can protect yourself.

Just one day after Sarah Palmer got into a relatively minor car accident she started getting phone calls from people she didn't know, people who wanted to make an appointment for her to see a doctor, for free. "For about two or three weeks, they were calling almost every day it was almost like I didn't want to answer the phone."

Palmer got dozens of calls from rehab clinics and marketing firms hired by doctor's offices to drum up business, recruiting accident victims listed in public police reports. "They would just call and say, 'You really need to see a doctor, no one deserves to be hurt or in pain.' And I'm like, 'I'm not in pain." Sarah said after warnings like "some injuries don't show up right away," she allowed "Professional Research Marketing" a small telemarketing outfit, to set up an appointment with "Apex Medical Management Center," a rehab clinic near her home. "On the first visit, I didn't see a doctor I talked to the office manager and he already had an appointment set up for me to see an attorney to sue the man that hit me." Also for free, but Sarah says the Clinic's sales pitch didn't jive with paperwork she was asked to sign. "If you start refusing medical treatment or if you refuse to sue then you're going to be responsible for the entire bill, but the whole time they were telling you you're not responsible for anything." Bottom line, Sarah's was convinced the clinic was banking on a lawsuit, she got suspicious and walked out without signing anything, or ever seeing a doctor. The office manager at APEX refused our requests to see the forms he asked Sarah to sign. Both the clinic's owner and medical doctor ignored our requests for on camera interviews.

But APEX isn't the only Memphis area clinic recruiting patients through police reports. Dozens do it sometimes very aggressively. It may be legal, the question is, for the medical doctors associated with these clinics, is it ethical? Dr. Mack Land, Memphis Medical Society said, "I think that is an activity that I haven't heard of and the Medical Society hasn't heard of until you asked the question." We asked the question because according to state regulations, when it comes to advertising it's considered unethical and unprofessional for a doctor to use "techniques of communication which intimidate, exert undue pressure or undue influence over a prospective client," or make "any appeals to an individual's anxiety in an excessive or unfair manner."

Hattie Mae Westley is an accident victim. "Every day, every day from in the morning up until the evening." So, do repeated phone calls and letters from doctor's offices to accident victims like Hattie Mae Westley of Memphis count? Dr. E. Haavi Morreim, Medical Ethicist said, "If it is again and again if it ignores somebody saying 'no thank you' these are some of the things that begin to make it unseemly and potentially exploitive or at lease intrusive." The problem is those rules are subjective, making them nearly impossible to enforce. Reporter: You sort of see this as ambulance chasing? "It certainly brings that term to mind." Ambulance-chasing doctors. "The physician is supposed to keep the patient's interests foremost and above all should not exploit the patient's vulnerability." Which is exactly what Sarah Palmer felt several clinics, including APEX Medical tried to do to her. Of the half-dozen clinics that called her, only one returned our calls. PAC Medical in Memphis told us, "We simply provide an opportunity to obtain useful information about the state of their health following the accident that they wouldn't know about without our call." But for accident victims like Hattie May, there were too many opportunities and too many calls from too many clinics. "I don't think it's right, because that's my private business, and I don't think it's right." And like Sarah Palmer, she would rather make the decision whether to see a doctor for herself instead of someone who got her name out of a police report.

If you start getting calls after an accident, be sure to get the name and number of the person calling and the name of the doctor's office or clinic. Get a written description of the costs BEFORE your visit. Read contracts carefully before you sign. And most importantly don't be pressured, especially if you feel fine. You can prevent these calls by registering for the "Do Not Call List."