I read Joan Savitsky’s recent New York Times piece with profound empathy for the author—and for a good friend of mine, both of whom are physicians.
Dr. Savitsky narrates what it was like living through four years under the threat of an impeding law suit for purported malpractice. A young woman under her care had succumbed to an aggressive cancer, and the family elected to sue Dr. Savitsky for “malicious, willful, wanton or reckless” conduct. According to the wording of the complaint, she had acted “negligently, carelessly and without regard” for her patient’s health.
Reading through the piece, I readily identified Dr. Savitsky’s feelings as very similar to what my friend experienced when he found himself in a similar situation. Legal action was brought against him by the grieving parents of a child he had cared for in the newborn period. Despite timely diagnosis and intervention, the child succumbed to an overwhelming infection.
In both cases the litigation process dragged out over an extended period of time. Dr. Savitsky’s was eventually dropped (the plantiffs’ attorneys felt they were unlikely to prevail); my friend’s case went to court and the jury acquitted him of any wrong doing. From the standpoint of these physicians, although both cases had favorable outcomes, a certain damage had been done.
Dr. Savitsky divulges that she left her primary care practice after almost thirty years. She writes: “I can’t say it was because of being sued, but I can’t say it was irrelevant either.” After his courtroom debacle my friend retired from medical practice for nearly a year.
My friend comments that “a lawsuit is a life changing experience, perhaps similar in scope to losing a loved one. I suppose it involves losing that part of yourself that was ‘secure.’” In short, it breaks your soul.
While unfortunately there are those physicians who seem to care little for their patients, the majority of doctors do desire to provide those entrusted to their care with the best they can offer. When the outcome sours, it is not only the patient or the patient’s family who suffers. When the patient elects to sue, the physician experiences feelings of betrayal.
In the face of failure, most clinicians grieve privately in their own way. They examine the facts of the case; they ask themselves if there were anything they could have done differently to alter the outcome. Many times the answer is no.
The sad fact is that, when all is said and done, physicians who have been sued are changed people. Many of them are resilient and return to medical practice—with a healthy dose of mistrust and a touch of paranoia. Others elect to leave the profession entirely. Those who continue to practice remain vigilant, ever mindful that at some point they can be sued again.
Broken souls take time to mend; some never heal entirely.