How malpractice hurts doctors and their future patients

Little has been written about the impact a malpractice lawsuit has on physicians.

But physicians who’ve been sued have a higher rate of suicide, and emergency physician Edwin Leap wrote about how doctors are emotionally scarred from the grueling ordeal of a trial.

A recent piece from American Medical News puts faces on the toll:

The key to surviving is having a strong social support network. Attorneys advise their clients not to talk about the case. But this isolates many physicians during a period for which they are unprepared for:

“It makes you feel like keeping it to yourself,” Dr. Sullivan said. “You just feel like you’re alone, and there’s not a lot of help out there for you.”

Having a strong social support network is essential when enduring litigation, said John-Henry Pfifferling, PhD, director of the Center for Professional Well-Being in Durham, N.C. “You need to talk about your anger or your symptoms of depression. There’s suffering, and then there’s suffering alone.”

And doctors who’ve been sued return to practice with considerably less joy than before. One even compares it to overcoming death:

“I was mentally prepared for a guilty verdict, but when they said it, it was like someone had sucked the soul out of my heart,” Dr. Melton said.

He went back to practicing medicine, but the joy of his work diminished. He slept more and had less energy for his church and the community projects he once enjoyed. Friends and relatives noticed he was quieter.

Surviving a lawsuit is akin to overcoming a death, said Dr. Firestone, the California psychiatrist and attorney. Doctors go through phases of denial, grief and acceptance. “[The impact] varies from individual from individual, but it could last a lifetime,” he said.

Worse, their future patients are affected.  After a lawsuit, all the doctors interviewed in the piece practiced more cautiously, ordered more tests, and viewed their patients as adversaries:

“It destroys the collaborative nature of physicians and patients … It used to be a point of pride that I would take on the difficult patients … I am far less likely to take on those challenges.”

Of course, injured patients need to be the focus of medical malpractice efforts, but as I have noted previously, the system fails them them as well, since most of those legitimately injured don’t receive proper and timely compensation.  Remember, more than half of every compensated dollar goes to lawyers and administrative fees.

60% doctors will be sued by the time they reach age 55.  Does that mean the majority of physicians in America are bad doctors? No, most have the patient’s best interest at heart, but unfortunately, made a mistake that resulted in patient harm.

But it’s apparent that dragging them through our unnecessarily adversarial liability system not only hurts them, but their future patients as well.

Both cannot be forgotten in this debate.

Kevin Pho is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.  He is founder and editor of, also on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn.

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