From the Editor

February 2, 2007

How do you tell your story?

Doctors who've been sued for malpractice know a special kind of pain. Recently, a Louisiana internist told us about the anguish he felt for six long years while a case against him wound a long and tedious course through to settlement. He used phrases like "sick feeling," "anxiety and dread," "drained and bitter."

He described the course of treatment and the unexplainable events that brought a woman into the ER with chest pain and saw her discharged minus most of one hand. He talked about normal blood enzymes, upper GI series, and gall bladder scan. He talked about a cardiac cath, angioplasty, a tear, bypass surgery. He talked of psychosis, a neuro consult, CAT scan of the brain, repeat EKGs and other lab studies, all to evaluate the patient's continued complaints-of chest pain, headache, abdominal pain, insomnia, nervousness, back pain, and, at the end, of the pain in her hand that progressed rapidly from a by-the-way reference to pain in hand to complete absence of blood flow despite good pulses at the wrist. At least six other physicians were involved in the patient's care; initially, only the internist was named in the suit.

It took this doctor 14 single-spaced, typed pages to tell us his story, and it convinced me that there was no malpractice, despite the bad result for the patient. And yet he settled. On advice of counsel, because it was a good deal-"only $150,000 for a lost limb; it could be millions in front of a jury." That scenario is all too familiar to physicians these days.

With that restriction, I'd be done now.

Can a physician truly describe a complex clinical situation in 2,000 characters, so that anyone who sees his name in the NPDB will understand that he settled only because it was the lesser of two evils, not because he did anything wrong?

I don't know. I do know that it will take all the editing prowess you possess. My suggestion: Do what I do. Write what you want to say, then edit it down. Chop out words you don't absolutely need. Use short words. Abbreviate clinical terms whenever possible without risking clarity. And leave emotion out of your account. You will feel it; you must feel it, or why would you have become a doctor in the first place. But you can't afford to let it take 14 pages-or even one-when you've only got 2,000 characters.