This posting is not about tort reform. It is not about defensive medicine (e.g., MDs taking too many tests to avoid the chance of lawsuit.) It is not about controlling costs or improving the quality of care. It is not even about whether malpractice lawsuits are fair. It is about the emotional effect on a doctor when he or she is sued for malpractice.
A friend of mine (I’ll alternate genders to help maintain confidentiality) recently found herself in this situation. By any measure, this person is an excellent physician. She has impeccable clinical judgment when it comes to both diagnosis and treatment. She has superb interpersonal skills and bedside manner. She is highly respected by her peers, by the nurses, and by all who know her.
Recently he found himself as a defendant in a malpractice lawsuit. The details and merits of the case don’t matter all that much. The patient had been under his care for many, many years and was always satisfied with the quality of care offered. After the patient died, the patient’s children sued.
Even though she knew that she had done nothing wrong, my friend’s main emotional response to the lawsuit was that she was ashamed. She did not want anyone to know about the case — whether colleagues in the hospital or social friends. I was stunned. Without knowing any of the evidence in the case, I was confident that this doctor had done her best in treating another human being and would be appalled to think she had done anything to create harm. I also knew this person to be as well trained and well intentioned as anyone I could imagine.
And, yet, he felt shame in being named as a defendant in a case that accused him of negligent treatment. As I talked to other doctors, I learned that this was a common reaction to such lawsuits. Another friend talked of the scars left from a case 20 years ago. He was found not to be at fault, but he could still vividly recall the weeks of shame he felt while the case proceeded.
What is it that makes doctors respond in this way? Are they so naive about the legal system that they are not able to absorb its brickbats with equanimity? After all, people in other fields are sued all the time, and while they feel many emotions, usually shame is not at the top of the list.
I think it is this. Doctors devote their lives to alleviating human suffering caused by disease. They spend decades in training. They disrupt their family lives to be available to help others. For them, this is a calling. It is not part of their life. It is their life. They measure their worth to their community and ultimately value themselves by their unfettered dedication to this cause — and by society’s appreciation for it.
A malpractice claims shatters this construct. In the doctor’s mind and heart, it says, “Society does not value all that I have devoted my life to. They do not believe I am worthy of trust that is granted to me, notwithstanding the effort, energy, and dedication I have given to this calling.” And perhaps he even says, “Maybe I am not really as good a doctor or as good a person as I think I am.”
For someone who has spent his or her whole life basking in the gratitude and admiration of individuals and society, this can be a devastating experience. Even when the verdict is issued, clearing the doctor of all wrong, it can leave a terrible scar.
As this particular case proceeded, I was really pleased to see an evolution in the doctor’s feelings. After watching the opposing witnesses misrepresent the clinical evidence in the case, she got really, really angry. Her sense of shame evaporated. It was replaced by an outrage that the patient’s children, the plaintiff’s lawyer, and members of her own profession were causing her to spend hours away from the care of other needy patients. With the arrival of anger, her confidence returned.
Sure enough, he was cleared of all allegations. He came back to work, and I was heartened to see that caring smile return to the floors of our hospital. I hope he never has occasion to feel unwarranted shame ever again.
Paul Levy is the President and CEO of Beth Israel Deconess Medical Center in Boston. Paul recently became the focus of much media attention when he decided to publish infection rates at his hospital, despite the fact that under Massachusetts law he is not yet required to do so. For the past three years he has blogged about his experiences in an online journal, Running a Hospital, one of the few blogs we know of maintained by a senior hospital executive.