(Respecting the concerns of legal and insurance counsel, we can talk about our feelings with trusted confidants but not the specifics of the case.)
Our pre-litigation manner of relating to our extended family, our medical colleagues, and our friends and acquaintances will be mirrored in our post-litigation relationships, The more intimate we are with members of our extended family --- parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles --- before we are sued, the more easily we can confide in them after the suit is filed. We may share our situation with close friends and trustworthy staff members, or we may continue in our usual style of confiding only in those closest to us. As all of us know, even with the best of intentions, it is difficult to change our behavior.
Dr. Paul Young describes his family as a "typical" midwestern clan. The men in the family hunt and fish together, talk politics, and enjoy exchanging barbs and jokes. The women talk about children, recipes, and vacations, without mentioning their individual troubles. Learning that his anesthesiologist cousin had been sued, he felt impelled, given his own experience 'with litigation, to schedule a fishing trip with him so that they could talk. He describes fishing for most of a weekend, talking constantly, but never once broaching the subject of either his own or his cousin's medical malpractice lawsuit. Although neither changed their usual style of relating and they were aware that talking about their concerns might have been helpful, they nonetheless each expressed satisfaction about sharing the weekend' away.
Colleagues may suspect we have been sued after we experience a widely known catastrophic outcome but hesitate to mention the subject. Sometimes it is helpful, especially for senior physicians or department chairmen, to approach colleagues, of whose suit they have knowledge or suspicions, and offer to talk with them about it. They can be especially helpful if they have been through the process themselves. Our partners and other colleagues can be even more helpful, as we have noted, if they know that we are in the midst of a lawsuit, switching coverage, for example, because they understand that we need extra time to attend to it. Uninformed, they will not know that our request for time away is to attend our trial and not just a vacation. It is far better to be accepted with understanding and support than to invite hard feelings into our lives because of our frequent unexplained absences.
Sometimes we sense that one or more of our colleagues, especially those who are well-meaning family friends of the potential plaintiff, are involved in the case. They may have made remarks to the patient that proved instrumental in the plaintiff's filing of the lawsuit, they may be serving as an expert witness, or they may have a social relationship with one of the litigants. There is no easy cure for the disruption this can introduce into previously harmonious relationships.
Psychologist Dr. Cynthia Davis had a good friend who had repeatedly expressed her concern about Davis's eye problem. Finally, she insisted that Davis consult with another of her friends, an ophthalmologist who Davis later sued.
As Davis related, “So I thought, I cannot tell her that this has happened. She was upset that she didn't act in time, didn't refer me soon enough; how is she going to feel now if the physician she referred me to screwed up? And so while the jury trial was going on, she called me several times and she said, "What's going on, how's everything, how are you doing?" And I told her nothing about this because I had resolved not to tell her anything. I didn't know she knew. I wouldn't have told her. She was withholding and I was withholding. My motivation was to protect her. Her motivation was she was very angry with me because I hadn't told her. Then afterward, she called me and said, ‘Okay, I know all about it, tell me, I’m very angry. A friend wouldn't do this: I can't trust you; we're done.’ That was very stressful. So she and I met and we didn't exactly resolve it but at least she resolved to be my friend. And so it was touch and go, a little tentative, tense for the next year but it's behind us now. I wouldn't say we're back as close but we're back as friends.”
Such rifts and estrangements in the medical community are among the unintended, but very real, consequences of the litigation explosion. On the other hand, the support of colleagues who, on principle, willingly serve as expert witnesses on our behalf is heartwarming. None of us could successfully defend our case without the testimony of colleagues who are willing to study the case and place themselves and their reputations on the line to stand by us.
Personal physicians constitute unique resources for physicians who have been sued, offering not only support but also sensible advice on managing our health and minimizing the stress associated with a medical malpractice lawsuit.
We must manage our relationships with the office staff in our own way. When we tell our staff about our situation, their knowledge of the stages of litigation and what it demands of us makes them supportive, solicitous, and protective.
Adapted from “Adverse Events, Stress, and Litigation: A Physician’s Guide” by SC Charles and PR Frisch, with permission.