How to survive a medical liability lawsuit

I do not feel that I truly survived my lawsuit. Sure, I am alive, but the emotional toll it took on me during the four years that we co-existed was tremendous. That being said, I do feel that it taught me several things that may be helpful to others.

My lawsuit occurred very early in my career. The series of events that led up to it happened when I was a mere 15 months into my pediatric practice. Being named in a lawsuit as a young new physician led to serious self-doubt and much thought about how to abandon medicine as a career entirely. Being $100,000 in debt from my medical education (a sum that pales in comparison to what many of my trainees these days have racked up) certainly motivated me to continue practicing medicine. It also influenced my decision to pay back my student loans as quickly as possible, despite favorable interest rates. I saw my medical school debt as a psychological burden more than a financial one. I could not abandon medicine until those debts were paid.

Discovering that other physicians I knew and respected had been involved in lawsuits was my salvation. Being sued is an isolating and shameful experience even though 75 to 99 percent of physicians will experience this during the span of their careers (75 percent of “low risk” specialties and 99 percent of “high risk”). We don’t like to talk about it, so it seems as if it is an uncommon experience, an anomaly. After I learned that the records pertaining to my case had been requested by a legal team, I shared my angst with my partners. I was surprised to hear that both of them had been through lawsuits of their own. But it is not something that most physicians will readily advertise.

My lawsuit also taught me how excruciatingly slow the legal system can be. It took two years after my interactions with the patient before the suit was filed. The process from that day in December until it was finally dropped dragged on for nearly four years. Progress occurred in fits and starts. I would receive thick packets of records in the mail one day but then hear nothing else for months. Although the suit occupied my mind on a daily basis, I could almost get to the point of pretending it didn’t exist. But then the next thick packet would arrive.

I learned that a good attorney truly lives up to the name of “counselor.” I was assigned an attorney by my malpractice carrier and he turned out to be a really great guy. More important than the competence with which he filed legal documents and identified expert testimony was his ability to take care of me as a human being and provide reassurance that we would get through each step together.

Another unsettling revelation was that, on the surface, nothing was different. It was difficult to reconcile such a life-altering event with a seemingly unaltered daily routine. A scarlet “M” did not appear on my forehead. My employers, when I notified them, did not seem overly concerned. No one showed up on my doorstep to snatch my medical license away. Not that I wanted those things to happen, but my personal reality of living with a lawsuit was totally incongruent with how life just went on.

Ultimately, the lawsuit was dropped. Lots of time and the distractions of work and becoming a parent several times and gaining more age and experience have faded the scars a bit. Along the way, I thought less and less about abandoning medicine and continue to practice nearly 12 years after the lawsuit was filed. I work with residents every day and have started to share pieces of this story with them. I wish I could protect them from the likelihood of going through this someday, too. Instead, I will let them know that they are not alone.

The author is an anonymous physician.

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