Being sued is a life-changing experience. It affects you, your staff, and your family. It can feel like a vote of no confidence from the very people you are trying to help.
And when a lawsuit occurs, it can trigger a conflicting flood of thoughts and emotions that over time transition from self-doubt and questioning, to anger, frustration, and defiance.
Add to this internal dialogue the ultimate question, “What should I do now?” and repeat for many weeks (or possibly months), and you have some sense of what it is like for those who have a claim made against them.
If you can relate to the situation above, chances are you’re one of the 42 percent of U.S. physicians and surgeons sued at least once in their career. Granted, in many cases the claims were dismissed or settled prior to court without any payments being made. But the fact remains: Regardless of outcome, there is generally a personal price paid following a lawsuit.
It is estimated that about 75 percent of physicians who are sued never expected a specific event or action to lead to a lawsuit. An incident viewed as nonproblematic by a physician is often viewed as worthy of action by patients. Patients primarily sue because of how they were made to feel. Undoubtedly there needs to be a medical error, delay, or other issue that forms the basis of the case, but the reason they decide to seek recourse is generally because they feel disrespected or dismissed.
Following a lawsuit, physicians tend to move in one of three directions, depending on how they choose to deal with this traumatic experience:
1. Retire. This is a path that many before you have chosen, and one that leads many physicians to wonder, “Was it all worth it?” If the end game of a career is to walk away, that question may never be fully answered.
2. Continue practicing, but in a state of “guarded defensiveness.” Doctors in this group tend to start practicing more tentatively, often second-guessing their own diagnostic abilities. Unfortunately, relationships with patients often change too, and the assumed trust that previously defined the doctor-patient relationship becomes one of distrust and cynicism. Practicing in such an environment causes many to become disillusioned, resentful, and ultimately, to burn out.
3. Find ways to move past the experience, and to go on to lead a fulfilling professional career. Some may find this easy to do, but there are others who feel shackled by feelings of guilt and self- doubt. Such feelings are natural, but it’s important to recognize that litigation does not define you. The world needs experienced, knowledgeable, passionate, and fully engaged doctors.
If you choose to move past the experience, here are a few tips that may help you stay fulfilled and purpose-driven:
1. Don’t practice medicine in a way that assumes all patients are opportunistic and will sue regardless of a genuine complaint. If you do, it will change how you relate to patients, how you think about their symptoms, and generally rob you of aspects you find most satisfying as a practitioner.
2. Learn to say, “I’m sorry.” Anger is the primary fuel driving litigation, so providing a sincere apology that expresses empathy without admitting fault can sometimes be enough to prevent the trauma of a claim.
3. Look for ways to better engage and communicate with patients. It’s estimated 70 percent to 80 percent of all medical malpractice litigation is related to deficiencies in doctor-patient communication. Becoming guarded and disconnected in your interactions with them might be the most counterproductive thing you can do.
There are many ways to prevent patients from feeling unheard and disconnected. Start each encounter with a personal and warm greeting. Then strive to make sure you deliver information in a way that patients will understand, accept, and remember. Make sure to include patients in the decision-making process. After all, it’s their health! And make sure your staff understands they must treat patients in a compassionate manner as well.
A lawsuit can be a life- and career-changing event. However, it can also create an opportunity for a fresh start, one that is better for patients, and that makes you enjoy the practice of medicine once again. Put yourself back in charge of your life after a lawsuit. Don’t let it define you or your practice. Then take the steps that will enable you to continue to provide care to patients who need and want your knowledge and expertise.
Sue Larsen is chief education officer for Astute Doctor, a global physician education and communication company working with medical practices, hospitals, and residents to reduce risk and improve patient experience and outcomes through improved patient interactions. Larsen has spent over 20 years in the healthcare industry, with 15-plus years spent designing and delivering live and online education focused on professional skills development and disease-state education. Astute Doctor provides CME and provider educational courses. For additional information, visit www.astutedoctor.com