When Physicians Are Sued: The Emotional Cost of Malpractice Litigation

Posted on August 2, 2010 by VITAL WorkLife

A recent report by the American Medical Association found that an average of 95 medical liability claims are filed for every 100 physicians, and more than 20 percent of physicians had been sued two or more times over the course of their careers. Although those numbers are skewed by age and specialty, among other variables, there’s a better than even chance that a physician will have to deal with at least one claim in their years of practice.

What happens once a claim is filed? Data from the Physician Insurers Association of America indicate that sixty-five percent of claims filed in 2007 were dropped, dismissed or withdrawn, 25.7 percent were settled, 4.5 percent were decided by an alternative dispute mechanism, and 5.0 percent were resolved by trial—with the defendant prevailing in 90 percent of cases that went to trial.

However, even though the majority of cases go away, doctors nonetheless pay a high price. Financially, an average of $22,000 in legal fees is incurred on each claim that is dropped, dismissed or withdrawn—and more than $100,000 on cases that go to trial (not to mention the $200,000 to $375,000 settlements paid by insurance companies).

But, legal fees and premium increases are not the only costs of malpractice claims. Perhaps most important, physicians pay an enormous emotional and personal toll. “Doctors don’t like losing patients and often blame themselves for poor outcomes—even if they haven’t done anything wrong,” notes David Matthew, MD who serves as a consultant and physician peer coach for VITAL WorkLife.

Having a patient’s family and legal team attack their professional performance is a time-consuming, expensive and personally painful experience for most doctors. In addition to having less time to devote to patients and family, it can negatively affect their income, their egos, and their sense of professionalism and confidence.

“Ironically it’s during the course of malpractice battles that physicians often become less patient, less communicative, more irritable and ultimately more vulnerable to subsequent malpractice claims,” explains Dr. Alan Rosenstein, medical director for VITAL WorkLife. “Research shows a strong correlation between disruptive physicians, who account for the majority of staff and patient complaints, and malpractice lawsuits.”

Research conducted by Vanderbilt Medical Center showed that 9% of physicians accounted for 50% of unsolicited patient complaints, and over 50% of malpractice dollars paid out over the study period.

“Ideally, a doctor presented with a malpractice suit will call VITAL WorkLife before he or she calls a lawyer,” says Rosenstein. “Our physician peer coaches, who are available through our Physician Wellness Resources, can share their knowledge of experiences that other physicians have had while contesting or settling a claim. They can prep them on what to expect—and coach them through unexpected developments.”

He also notes, “There can also be a downstream effect as stress and worry carry over into a physician’s home life—oftentimes family members are the only ones who see how much it is affecting the physician, and they can also suffer at the same time. The physician peer coaches and our senior consultants can help physicians—and their families—deal with the stress and emotional toll more constructively.”

If a physician is struggling with guilt, either deserved or undeserved, as well as stress or anxiety, VITAL WorkLife gives them a confidential, compassionate way to explore and deal with those feelings. The healthcare profession is too short of doctors to lose one over a single mistake or accusation. Organizations that are concerned about a physician who is dealing with a medical liability claim, or struggling after an adverse event, can also call VITAL WorkLife and use its intervention services to help assist in providing appropriate help. This can prevent more serious behavioral or performance problems manifesting themselves because of feelings that the physician is not confronting or dealing with effectively.

“Defending a malpractice suit is a horrible experience to go through without support,” concludes Rosenstein. “At VITAL WorkLife, we’re here to provide all the support they need to stay productive and practicing through their ordeal.”

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