A very good colleague faces a groundless lawsuit


Perhaps one doctor should shoot

One lawyer, a scoundrel and brute

If there cannot be found

Any cause or a ground

For filing a malpractice suit.

Synopsis: I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. I danced back from the brink of burnout in 2010, and, honoring a one-year non-compete clause, went for adventures working in out-of-the-way locations. After jobs in Alaska, New Zealand, Iowa, and Nebraska, I returned home and took a part-time position with a Community Health Center, where I worked for 3 years.  I left last month because of a troubled relationship with the Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system.  Now I’m working a bit with one of the rural docs, and getting ready for another job in Alaska.

In the hospital for paperwork, I ran into a subspecialist colleague.  I gave a brief case presentation, and asked for advice.

We call such interactions “curbside consults,” and we have etiquette and protocol for them.  If the consultant asks to see the patient, we make arrangements.  If not, the specialist’s name remains absent from the dictation.  The interchange of knowledge adds value to patient care without adding cost, and the social interaction reinforces the personal bonds between physicians.

Some consultants give more cogent answers than others.  In this case, the solid response took less than a minute, and made me an incrementally better physician.

At the end, my friend and colleague said, “I’m being sued.”

I have known this doc for close to 3 decades.  During my Winnebago days, years before our first face-to-face meeting, I could count on acceptance of my patient transfers, in the face of uncertain payment by the IHS and despite life-threatening illness.   For years I have seen moribund patients reprieved from death, sick patients restored to health, apparently well patients kept in good health and reassured, and early stage cancers detected and promptly treated.  I received excellent advice, and never, not once, saw a mistake.  As near as I can tell, this is one of the few doctors who never has an off day.

I asked, “Is this the first time you’ve been sued?”

The answer:  Yes.  The details: completely bogus.  The patient failed to promptly take initial advice, went elsewhere, got the same advice and complied.

No lawyer in town would take such a case.  We agreed that an ambulance chaser might be at work.  (By law, an attorney might advertise, but may not directly solicit a client who did not contact them first.)

My heart sank in sympathy.  I talked about my one malpractice suit, where the lawyer named every doctor with a name on the chart, including the radiologist who diagnosed the spread of the cancer and the pathologist who did the autopsy.  All but one of those physicians, including me, got dropped from the suit before the trial.  Thus I could give reassurance.

I have a lawyer friend, who justified his profession’s ability to sue anyone for anything by saying, “At least the only thing we’re taking away is money, and that can always be replaced.”

A malpractice lawsuit takes away much more than money.  It sullies a reputation.  It sucks time and energy that should be constructively applied to patient care.  For the rest of that doctor’s career, he or she will always have to answer “yes” if asked, “Have you ever been sued?” and have to give details.

Worse, doctors start to question their own judgment.

“You know,” I said, “All it would take would be one disgruntled doctor killing one scum bag lawyer.  But we never do that, instead we kill ourselves.”

A lot of doctors, having met with the first lawsuit of their careers, choose to retire.  My colleague could easily decide that the straw of the lawsuit, added to the large and increasing regulatory burden in the face of decreasing reimbursement, has broken the camel’s back.

I would miss the clinical competence and the friendship.

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