By Gail Fiore M.A., M.S.W., President, The Winning Focus
Plaintiffs’ lawyers often portray medical malpractice lawsuits as a way of shining a light on bad doctors and deterring malpractice. But these lawsuits can disrupt the practices and the lives of even the best physicians, affecting their mental health, putting their practices in jeopardy, alienating colleagues, causing them to become mistrustful of patients and undermining the functioning of the entire group within which they practice.
A recent study found that more than half the physicians surveyed had been sued at some point in their careers – so this is clearly not an issue affecting only “bad doctors.” Of those, 71% said the lawsuit negatively affected their medical careers and 24% said they no longer trusted patients and treated them differently after having been sued. Other studies have found that as many as 95% of doctors become so stressed during the litigation process that they experience PTSD-like symptoms, including anxiety, depression, diminished thinking capacity and serious health problems.
There’s a name for this phenomenon—Medical Malpractice Stress Syndrome.
My firm works with physicians who have been sued and we’ve seen the same effects again and again. For example, one doctor with over 20 years’ experience, working at a health center in an underserved community, almost left medicine completely. She felt that getting sued meant she must have done something wrong and that, perhaps, she shouldn’t be seeing patients anymore.
Another physician, an OB/GYN in practice for 16 years, felt the lawsuit wasn’t affecting her day-to-day functioning until she walked into an OR, had a flashback to the surgery associated with the litigation, became lightheaded and couldn’t proceed with the surgery. She also considered leaving medicine.
A hospital-based radiologist was sued for the first time after 34 years in practice. He began to see his job and his patients differently, his trust in them and himself diminished, and is now planning to hasten his retirement.
Clearly, a malpractice lawsuit is not something a physician, practice group, or health system can wall off and compartmentalize, with no effect on the physician’s overall practice and ability to function as if in the normal course of business. There is serious risk of spillover into every aspect of the physician’s personal and business affairs.
And although these are psychological symptoms, traditional psychotherapy is not an effective way of dealing with them because its focus is too diffuse, and results may take years to achieve. What’s necessary is a practical type of litigation stress coaching – short-term, goal oriented and tailored to the specifics of litigation challenges and process.
If this isn’t a job for traditional therapists, it’s also not a job for lawyers, whose job is to practice law, not to deal with behavioral or psychological issues. Physicians need coaching that is clear and straightforward, that’s covered by privilege and is intended to improve communication between them and their legal team. Outlining goals and expectations and helping them get into a frame of mind where they can be an effective witness and successful defendant makes a marked difference, not only in the context of the legal proceedings, but within their overall professional and personal lives.
Appropriate and focused litigation stress coaching can improve outcomes in legal cases as well as reducing the likelihood of a downhill spiral that results in future claims. At the same time, it helps restore a good doctor’s confidence and focus, allowing them to thrive and maintain the quality of care they provide to their patients.
In the long run, that translates to fewer malpractice complaints, lower insurance premiums, happier patients and healthier practices.
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Gail Fiore is President of The Winning Focus, LLC, which works with physicians and other professionals involved in litigation who are having difficulty coping with stress, anxiety and other emotional issues.
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