Relationships During Litigation: With Others in Our Social Network

(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 relationships within our church or faith community can also give us significant support. We can pray and share our predicament with our priest, rabbi, or minister, with our Bible study group, or with other members and leaders of our religious community.

Others of us, especially obstetrician-gynecologists, tell our patients of our lawsuits, especially when they are highly publicized, and offer them the option to choose other physicians. Such informed patients almost overwhelmingly appreciate knowing about the lawsuit, express confidence in us, and respond with their support.

Dr. Laura West, an ObGyn, reflects about her recent loss at a highly publicized trial. “If I lose some patients, I'm too busy anyway. I tried to be an example, actually for my younger physicians, and show them life goes on. I'm sued, I'm humiliated, and I'm on the nightly news, the radio and the newspaper. But, guess what, I’m still earning a living, I still have my family, my patients are sending me flowers and writing me sweet notes. Some left. But I don't know who they are. My partner got the same thing. So, it didn't in the long run make any difference other than I think we're both a little embittered, I maybe more than she is, in that we like to practice medicine, even though you say to yourself, ‘I'm not going to care about these people anymore,’ but you still do.”

Some of us find that having no spouse or significant other person in our lives due to death, divorce, choice, or some other personal circumstances, leads us to feel isolated and alone without much hope of obtaining the support we so desperately need. We may also possess those personality characteristics that make entrusting ourselves and our needs to others an awkward or difficult challenge even when we do not feel particularly stressed. In such circumstances, the most important gift we can give to ourselves is to a serious effort to observe our feelings, our needs and our situation so that we can take steps to relieve our distress.

Dr. Tim Miller was faced with malpractice litigation shortly after he had terminated a 10 year relationship with one of his male medical school classmates. His feelings of loss and isolation were compounded by feelings of anger, guilt, and distress about the perceived injury by his patient. Although able to attend to his patients, he dreaded the end of the day that brought feelings of intense loneliness and sleep disturbed nights. Aware that he was beginning to become increasingly preoccupied and depressed, he sought out an older respected colleague who eventually suggested that he seek professional help to forestall further depression.

Professional help is not, however, the only recourse in such instances. Our personal physician, respected colleague, claims representative, defense attorney or risk manager are often helpful resources as are support programs offered by malpractice insurance companies. Such resources help us discover where we might find support in our own personal network. In Dr. Miller's case, a short series of sessions with a professional enabled him to begin to socialize with peers and to eventually share his concerns with a new friend.

A key component of a successful defense is being assured that we are supported and understood by others, especially those who know and care about us. We often play an important role, however, in obtaining that support by reaching out to those we trust and value.

Adapted from “Adverse Events, Stress, and Litigation: A Physician’s Guide” by SC Charles and PR Frisch, with permission.

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