Yes. Thousands of Americans die or are maimed each year because of physicians' incompetence or negligence. Medical negligence is one of the nation's worst public-health menaces.

In the mid-1970s, the California Medical Association and the California Hospital Association commissioned a landmark study. It concluded that one of every 126 hospital admissions resulted in injury from legally provable negligence -- and that one out of four of these injuries was fatal.

Other researchers, extrapolating from this study, estimate that 260,000 to 300,000 injuries and deaths in hospitals are caused by negligence every year.

Despite such findings, the medical profession has been notably reluctant to recognize the gravity of the situation. It tends to dismiss negligent injuries and deaths as "anecdotal" or unrepresentative of the medical system as a whole.

It's true that more is being done now to remove negligent doctors, but this is happening only because of increasing pressure from individuals and groups outside the medical profession. And what's being done is very little, considering the problem's vastness.

Some 50,000 physicians practice in New York State, for instance, but only about 40 are disciplined each year.

The time is long overdue for a presidential commission on medical malpractice, one that would identify the extent of this problem nationally and suggest changes in training, licensing, peer review and the role of criminal law in cases of gross medical negligence.

This problem should become a top national priority. -- Andrew Stein President, New York City Council

No. This whole issue has become a political and media event. Certainly medical negligence exists but not nearly to the extent that's made out.

As a group, physicians are hard-working and selfless. It's irresponsible to claim medical negligence is a major public-health menace.

Physicians accused of negligence are entitled to the same constitutional protection as anyone else. Many complaints from disgruntled patients are not justified.

Researching complaints thoroughly is expensive, and all medical societies are hurting financially. But we definitely do investigate, to the best of our ability, and when it's justified we take action. For instance, in 1985 the New York County Medical Society referred four doctors to the state's Office of Professional Medical Conduct. In 1986, the number was 24.

It's a myth that doctors will go to any length to protect colleagues who fall short of the standards of good practice. Such colleagues hurt our image and drive up liability-insurance rates. We don't want to be identified with them.

We do all we can to get rid of the bad apples, but we have no power beyond disciplining those who belong to the medical societies or referring them to the state.

We in the profession are doing the best job we can in removing negligent physicians, despite our lack of resources and power. But what we really need is state-mandated authority to suspend -- at least until appeals are completed -- the practice rights of those physicians whose peers have found them to be negligent. -- Dr. Isadore Rosenfeld Clinical Professor of Medicine, Cornell University; Past President, New York County Medical Society