Dealing With Malpractice Litigation Stress

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Effect on Family

The stress of a malpractice suit is bad enough for a physician, let alone throwing family into the mix. Since anything physicians say to their spouses could be admissible in court, these medical professionals may opt to keep all the extra tension bottled up.

“There are pressures at home and their families can’t understand what has happened to them when they act out," Linden says. He always instructed physicians in the Physician Litigation Workshop to let their spouses know they were being sued. Physicians who use their spouse as a crutch to get through the proceedings can help remove some of the stress.

“In one instance, the wife of a physician pulled me aside and asked what the session was all about and why the couple had been invited. Her husband had internalized his problem and kept his lawsuit a secret for two years! He had never told her or anybody else about the situation," Linden recounts.

Unfortunately, the workshops were eventually terminated; the main reason was because attendance was frequently poor. CMIC had approximately 3,500 to 4,000 doctors, yet typically only six to 12 physicians signed up for the workshop. Linden estimates that usually three-quarters of the attendees brought their spouse.

“I still, to this day, think the concept was a good one – helping comfort doctors at their time of true need and letting them know they as individuals were not the only ones going through what can be an ugly process," Linden reflects. "We answered many legal and a few psychological questions, and I hope we ultimately achieved some decrease in stress levels from those who attended."

Take-Away Message from a Psychologist

Dr. Dora Calott Wang, a specialist in anxiety disorders and stress management, is the author of "The Kitchen Shrink: A Psychiatrist's Reflections on Healing in a Changing World." She offers the following words of advice for physicians who find themselves facing a malpractice suit:

1. It may help to think of the lawsuit as a reflection of the times, rather than a statement about an individual's competence as a physician.

 2. Remember: some of the most ethical and compassionate physicians are sued. This is because they won't shy from caring for the most medically complex or emotionally troubled patients. 

 3. Many lawsuits are simply frivolous. One of my most competent trainees was sued four times during her residency alone. In a lawsuit, patients will name every doctor possibly involved. My resident was sued for simply being in the room. In addition to being competent, she was gorgeous ... so she was noticed.

 4. It will help a physician to focus on what's within his or her control – such as continuing to practice, and doing his or her best for patients. Obsessing about things beyond our control causes anxiety and is not constructive. For example, the ultimate decision of the judge or jury isn't in a person's control. But it is in their control to gather evidence as directed by their attorney, and do everything their attorney requests. It will be more productive, in terms of the defendant's well-being – and in terms of the outcome of the lawsuit – if the focus is on what can be controlled.

 5. Know that the lawsuit will pass. Someday the physician will see it as a brief blip in their long medical career.

Based on statistics, we know that a medical malpractice action will be visited upon most physicians or their close colleagues at some point in their careers. Physicians facing a medical malpractice case should take a deep breath and try to follow Wang’s advice. The litigation will pass. Finally, physicians should to focus on why they got into medicine in the first place. All the human improvement and relief a physician provides should not be marred by some litigious miscreants.

Michael J. Sacopulos is a partner with Sacopulos, Johnson & Sacopulos in Terre Haute, Ind. He also serves as national counsel for Medical Justice Services Inc. His practice focuses on assisting healthcare professionals in developing strategies and techniques to avoid medical liability claims. Sacopulos returned to Indiana to practice law after attending Harvard College and the London School of Economics. Reach him at mike_sacopulos@sacopulos.com .

1Malpractice Risk According to Physician Specialty New England Journal of Medicine 2011; 365: 629-636.

2 www.ama-assn.org – amednews Aug. 16, 2010.

3Fear of Lawsuits Influence Care from Most Orthopedic Surgeons by Maureen Health Day, February 9, 2012.

4Health Affairs, 29, No. 9 (2010): 1585-1592.

Author's Note: This work is copyrighted and is the exclusive property of the authors. It may only be used, in whole or in part, with the express written permission of the authors.

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