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« US Health Care vs. The World | Main | Hospital Administrators Are Not Always Honest »
Tuesday
Jun052012

Hello Doctor. I Wouldn't Hesitate To Sue You

nonclinical medical malpracticeGuest post by Dr. Mandy Huggins

How many times during your day does the specter of a malpractice law suite rear its ugly head?

“I wouldn’t hesitate to sue you.”

"I’m sorry, what?"

That is what I heard from the mother of one of my patients. At the time, I was only 2-3 months into practice, and I was evaluating a high school athlete who had recurrent stingers and a possible episode of transient quadriparesis . I wasn’t on the sidelines for these injuries, so I had to go on the reports given to me by the athlete and the school’s athletic trainer. However, with that information, I did not want to clear this player to return to football until I could be certain he didn’t have cervical stenosis or any other abnormality that might put him at risk for permanent damage if he suffered another neck injury. I told the athlete and his mother that I needed to get an MRI of his cervical spine in order to determine this. The athlete was understandably upset with my decision, but his mother supported my decision to proceed with caution. She explained to me that if her son played again, sustained another injury, and something “bad” happened, she would be more than happy to take legal action against me.

Fantastic.

First of all, I can’t say that I would blame her for being angry (at the very least) if I screwed up. But to tell me in my office, to my face, that she’s already thinking about suing me? I found that ridiculous. I must be in the minority, however. If you Google “how to sue a doctor,” an abundance of information follows. There’s an “ehow” on the subject, and even CNN offers an opinion.

I’m sure many can offer some anecdote about how a physician did this or that wrong, and I agree that there are some bad apples out there. That’s not the point of this post. The point is, way too many people are looking, just waiting, for something to happen to they can “get theirs.” It’s disappointing, and quite frankly, very scary. I didn’t go through a lifetime of education and training to doubt everything I do for fear of a law suit. I’m lucky; my specialty is non-surgical and rarely deals with critical health issues. But I’m hardly in the clear. A 2011 study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that by the age of 65, “75% of physicians in low-risk specialties had faced a malpractice claim, as compared with 99% of physicians in high-risk specialties.” So I have a 75% chance, give or take, that I’ll be named in at least one claim during my career. Of course, not all of these claims go to court and/or end up with the plaintiff being awarded, but you can see how frequently patients are quick to take action if they think they’ve been wronged.

I’ll continue to do what I’ve been trained to do – practice good, evidence-based medicine, communicate well with my patients, and document the you-know-what out of everything. But at the end of the day, the fear of a malpractice claim, valid or not, will always be in the back of my mind.

About: Dr. Mandy Huggins, MD is a sports medicine physician who practices in south Florida. She is board certified by the ABPMR and holds an added certificate of qualification (CAQ) in Sports Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Huggins at http://www.drmandyhuggins.com/

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Reader Comments (3)

"But to tell me in my office, to my face, that she’s already thinking about suing me? I found that ridiculous."

Ridiculous? YES. But I would love if all of our patients were as forthright. I handle all of my group's complaints, and most of the complaints could have been handled if our patients shared their concerns directly with us at the time of their visit rather than waiting to submit their concerns in a single spaced letter to the C.E.O. of the hospital.

And YES the vast majority of us will be sued by our patients during our careers, but most of our patients thank us.

Stories like this make me really happy to be practising in New Zealand, where it is virtually impossible to sue anyone. They have a government subsidised "Accident Compensation Corporation" which provides compensation to ANYONE (even visitors) who is injured in and accident in New Zealand. This includes what they delicately term "Medical Misadventures." There is a Medical Protection Society which insures and provides legal advice to doctors who find themselves the subject of a disciplinary case or investigation into a medical misadventure. My yearly membership in this Society costs my employer something like NZ$1200 per year. YES, that's TWO zeros, less than a 10th what my malpractice premium for Family Practice without OB was in the US.

We try very hard to practise rational, evidence based medicine. And I think mostly we succeed and where we don't there are programmes being developed to help us capture more screening when appropriate (such as cardiovascular screens for high risk individuals). It's refreshing that patients don't expect an MRI everytime their neck cracks or their fingers fall asleep and it's a relief to know I can practise good medicine without having to worry that I'll get sued if I miss something.

The down side is that maybe sometimes doctors get complacent. I do see that some. But we have twice monthly peer review in my practice/region and it's a great opportunity for us to "confess" where we feel we've missed things and how we should do it better. It seems that when I was in the States, this rarely happened because the doctors were so afraid that revealing mistakes, even to each other, would put them at risk for being sued. Crazy.

Thanks for sharing.

Agree, the threat of being sued is what drives healthcare in the U.S. Doing what is truly best for the patient comes second, which is a terrible and scary way to practice medicine, and not the reason I went to medical school. I am strongly thinking about leaving this country and practicing elsewhere if things dont change to be more physician friendly.

Sep 17 | Unregistered CommenterBC

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