Malpractice: Sued? Calm down!

August 19, 2005

Mouthing off about it can get you into more trouble than you're already in.

Most doctors worry about being sued at some point in their careers. But few understand the difference between being sued and being threatened with a suit. They don't realize that an attorney's request for a patient's records doesn't necessarily mean that they'll end up being sued. And even if they are served with an actual complaint, that may only be the opening salvo in a long and inconclusive war.

It's important to remember that few malpractice cases actually go to trial: Most are eventually dropped by the plaintiff or dismissed by a judge for lack of evidence. So if you're threatened with a malpractice suit-or the threat is actually carried out-don't react hastily or in anger. If you do, you could compound your problems.

I remember an internist who reacted badly to the first suit filed against him in 20 years of practice. He complained to everyone at the hospital who would listen: doctors, nurses, techs, orderlies. When he finally met with his malpractice carrier's defense team, they told him to shut up.

Obviously some malpractice suits are the result of real negligence. But many more are triggered by misunderstandings, unavoidable bad outcomes, or simply a patient's anger. If you're served with a complaint, or receive a letter threatening a lawsuit, first take a deep breath. Don't do anything rash, and don't start complaining to your colleagues. Instead, take the following steps:

1. Notify your malpractice carrier immediately. (Most policies require you to do this as a condition of coverage.) Then send the company's attorney a copy of the complaint or the letter.

2. Study the complaint carefully, and examine your records on that patient. If you can't recall the incident that gave rise to the complaint, don't worry. You'll be given more specifics during the discovery phase of the case-if it goes that far.

3. Research the underlying principles in the case so that you can act as your own "expert." You'll become an important member of your defense team if you can provide that expertise, and your attorney will be more effective.

4. If you encounter the patient-in or out of the office-be polite, and don't confront him about the suit.

5. Don't give into the temptation to talk about the case with your colleagues. If they ask, tell them your lawyer has instructed you not to discuss it.

6. You can and should discuss the case with your spouse or partner. A support person at home will help you get through the rough times. But caution him or her not to talk about the case with anyone else.