Overcoming the Stress of Malpractice Litigation: Solutions to Help Physicians Stay Healthy and Engaged

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Michigan Medicine - January/February 2016

by David P. Michelin, MD, MPH, The Doctors Company

Imagine the scene: 

You’re in your busy office on a typical day when a letter arrives—a patient is suing you for malpractice...

If the lawsuit proceeds to trial, the process can be lengthy, dominating your personal and professional life for a year, two years, or more. But as I learned during my own litigation experience, there are steps you can take to ease the strain you’re under, allowing you to continue to serve your patients and maintain healthy relationships with those around you. 

Prepare Thoroughly

First, take a deep breath—and then prepare. Approach the lawsuit simply as an unfortunate consequence of practicing medicine, the price of being a physician. In today’s medical climate, a lawsuit is essentially inevitable, especially if you conduct procedures. Treat the litigation as another necessary part of your career, and take the same approach as you would toward other hurdles like a board exam. Be meticulous. Go over your chart. Familiarize yourself with every aspect of the case. Be ready for your meetings with your attorney, and take an active role in your defense. Above all, prepare for the witness chair by taking part in litigation education, especially a mock deposition. 

Reach Out

Although you can’t divulge the clinical details of a current claim to family members, you can talk with them about how it is affecting you. By opening up to your spouse, children, and other family members, you can help prepare them and ease your own burden. Seek their input and advice. This can help you overcome the feelings of isolation that often accompany a malpractice claim. Doctors often have a tough, go-it-alone mentality. But this is the bottom line: Don’t go into a shell. Talk to somebody. 

Make Yourself a Priority

Every profession has its stresses, but doctors’ stresses are unique. Overwhelmed patients share with us their innermost thoughts and concerns. To the everyday stresses of our profession, add the stress of fighting a lawsuit to defend your reputation—more than ever, it becomes imperative that you take care of yourself. Don’t hesitate to make yourself your first priority. Do whatever you need to do to unwind. This might be physical exercise like running or biking, or it might simply involve becoming more engaged in other personal interests. If you’re not blocking out time to decompress, you’re doing a disservice to yourself, your case, and your patients. 

Rising Above the Challenge

Ultimately, after two trials spanning two-and-a-half years, I was completely exonerated by the jury. By adopting certain strategies, I was able to mitigate many of the negative effects so many doctors experience. You can still maintain your self-assurance, keep your relationships intact, and continue to provide the vital medical care on which your community relies.