Physician organizations, policy makers, and patient advocates have expressed concern that health plans have contractually limited the freedom of physicians to communicate with their patients. In response, many states have adopted gag laws that limit the ability of managed care contracts to restrict patient-physician communication. We examine the impact of these laws on patient trust in the physician.

We analyzed patients' ratings of trust in their physicians in states before and after adoption of gag laws. Individuals in states that had such laws throughout the study period were used as the comparison group. The analysis is based on a nationally representative sample of adults obtained from the 1996-1997 and 1998-1999 Community Tracking Study Household Surveys.

After adjustment for patient characteristics, it was estimated that the adoption of gag laws had no statistically significant impact on trust in the physician for the average patient. However, the adoption of gag laws is estimated to have increased trust in the physician by a modest amount (25 percent of a standard deviation) for health maintenance organization (HMO) enrollees who did not have a usual source of care.

Gag laws may assure HMO enrollees without a usual source of care that their physicians are free to speak candidly about treatment options. This does not necessarily imply that physicians are prohibited from speaking freely in the absence of such laws, but gag laws indicate concerns (justified or not) that patients have about unrestricted communication with their health care providers.

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