The Vault

You Want to Sue Me?

“I’d be lookin’ to sue you.”

I’m sorry, what?? That is what I heard from the mother of one of my patients. I was evaluating a high school athlete who had recurrent stingers (nerve injury that affects an upper limb, usually resolves with time) and a possible episode of transient quadriparesis (affecting all limbs this time). I wasn’t on the sidelines for these injuries, so I had to go on the reports given to me by the athlete and the school’s athletic trainer. However, with that information, I did not want to clear this player to return to football until I could be certain he didn’t have any cervical stenosis or any other abnormality that might put him at risk for permanent damage if he suffered another neck injury.

I told the athlete and his mother that I needed to get an MRI of his cervical spine (neck) in order to determine this. The athlete was understandably upset with my decision, but his mother supported my decision to proceed with caution. She explained to me that if her son played again, sustained another injury, and something “bad” happened, she would be more than happy to take legal action against me. Fantastic.

First of all, I can’t say that I would blame her for being angry (at the very least) if I screwed up. But to tell me in my office, to my face, that she’s already thinking about suing me? I found that ridiculous. I must be in the minority, however. If you Google “how to sue a doctor,” an abundance of information follows. There’s an “ehow” on the subject, and even CNN offers an opinion.

I’m sure many can offer some anecdote about how a physician did this or that wrong, and I agree that there are some bad apples out there. That’s not the point of this post. The point is, way too many people are looking, just waiting, for something to happen to they can “get theirs.” It’s disappointing, and quite frankly, very scary. I didn’t go through a lifetime of education and training to doubt everything I do for fear of a law suit. I’m lucky; my specialty is non-surgical and rarely deals with critical health issues. But I’m hardly in the clear. A 2011 study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that by the age of 65, “75% of physicians in low-risk specialties had faced a malpractice claim, as compared with 99% of physicians in high-risk specialties.” So I have a 75% chance, give or take, that I’ll be named in at least one claim during my career. Of course, not all of these claims go to court and/or end up with the plaintiff being awarded, but you can see how frequently patients are quick to take action if they think they’ve been wronged.

I’ll continue to do what I’ve been trained to do – practice good, evidence-based medicine, communicate well with my patients, and document the you-know-what out of everything. But at the end of the day, the fear of a malpractice claim, valid or not, will always be in the back of my mind.

Mandy Huggins, MD is a sports medicine physician practicing in south Florida. She is board certified by the ABPMR and holds an added certificate of qualification (CAQ) in Sports Medicine. You can follow her at her personal blog where this post first appeared.

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Carol LevyMS M.D.timChasMaggie Mahar Recent comment authors
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Carol Levy
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Carol Levy

Dr Huggins gives one example then says way too many looking for a payday. As a doctor she knows anecdotal is not proof. Public Citizen has estimated that 15% of doctors commit 85% of the malpractice. If the medical societies, licensing boards and the thin blue line worked to get rid of the bad apple recidivists people would not have to be leery of their doctors. This is my med mal story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R12rJd7BlvU&feature=youtu.be (synopsis) longer version: http://www.experienceproject.com/stories/Want-To-Tell-You-Abut-My-Medical-Malpractice-Experience/2879872 The doctor committed perjury, the Pa Superior Court said so: “We have little difficulty in concluding that Dr. Jannetta’s testimony at deposition was… Read more »

MS M.D.
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MS M.D.

A Patient asked me recently after a detailed discussion of a recommended surgery and alternatives ,risks , and benefits that if she signs the surgical consent, does she give up the right to sue me if she has a complication? I told her find another doctor.

tim
Guest
tim

“But to tell me in my office, to my face, that she’s already thinking about suing me? I found that ridiculous.” Her comment didn’t change the probability of her suing you, and it didn’t change your treatment plan. You have other patients every day who share her attitude, and simply don’t tell you. Unless the anecdote has some part in changing tort law in America — and it would have to change the campaign finance cash flows of the Democratic Party to do that — then you’d spend your time better by just ignoring her comment, and treat each patient… Read more »

Dena Rosko
Guest

What’s too bad is that even with all that effort we still share the same problem: an end-loaded system that supports divisiveness and fear-mongering, and makes for stressful legalizing and criminalizing of health when it’d be better to design a front-loaded system that communicates health in an iterative, modular, and collaborative way. I write more on health communication reform at http://bit.ly/zF4jwc N http://bit.ly/mPrXxv

Dena Rosko, MA-ComL
http://about.me/denarosko

Dena Rosko
Guest

I agree that we’ve a shared interest in improving if not revamping the health system. We need to change how we organize and communicate health before debating finances, whether that be in how to pay for the system or how not to be sued. I find it concerning the detached ambivalence or outright hostility I hear on both “sides.” I advocate designing health documentation chart systems that include the constituent’s text. Doing so will create a legal text in the “patient’s” own words without being translated into medical language or their informed consent or dissent overruled by “medically indicated…” We… Read more »

Chas
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Chas

As a physican my husband had gone through a similar experience with a patient. We work in a rural college town, in PA a college student from a the Philadelphia area (hugh malpractice claims and award area) came in with a headache. My husbnad felt her symptoms wre sinus related. She said how do you know I don’t have meningitis. Cause if I do, and you miss it I will sue you. My husband said to that patient: First off, there is nothing to suggest meningitis here and I will using all the resorces available to take care of you… Read more »

DeterminedMD
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DeterminedMD

Amen to this comment! The antiphysician lobby that, per the comments by various people here repeatedly, troll at sites to just bash and demean doctors in their various pathetic rhetoric that they then try to defend and diminish the intensity when justifiably called on it. And almost all of them aren’t doctors, and I will take the risk to say that the ones who are who defend this attitude that litigation is just evening the process probably don’t practice much clinical care anymore, if at all to begin with. I want to meet one of this idiots who make light… Read more »

Maggie Mahar
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Maggie Mahar

Ram K– Yes.

I hope others read your commnet.

John Smith
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John Smith

The only reason she may want to sue you is because you are too hot and she envies that.

I doubt it has to do with malpractice.

Peter1
Guest
Peter1

It’s possible the mother was counting on her “football athlete” son to provide for here future financial security from an NFL contract. I agree with Steve to just tell them to find another doc.

I also think better communication and empathy from docs could avoid most of these “lawsuits”. But medical treatment is expensive and there is no other system to provide compensation to cover paying for additional care from someone’s mistake/oversight/malpractice.

However I think most of the doc hype over lawsuits is bogus.
http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/08/17/most-u-s-docs-face-malpractice-suits-but-few-pay/

DeterminedMD
Guest
DeterminedMD

Sit back and watch how some MD who made the mistake of trying to take care of Whitney Houston will be crucified for writing prescriptions for benzodiazepines and how it is this doctor’s fault alone she died. Wow, get ready colleagues, the antiphysician lobby has their poster child and we will be seeing the picture, hearing the name, and reading how doctors are killing people because, hey, we’re supposed to be svengalies (don’t feel like looking up the spelling) and know who is in need and who is manipulating us. You know what, I hope the addiction crowd who is… Read more »

BobbyG
Guest

Funny.

John R. Graham
Guest

Although not being a physician, I wonder if any sports-med specialist’s treatment for a football injury should include a recommendation that the patient – and anyone else- should drop the sport and take up pretty much any other sport which is healthier and less dangerous.

Ram Krishnamoorthi
Guest
Ram Krishnamoorthi

I deeply sympathize with this experience, the anxiety and annoyance that it evokes. But, the tone of this post only exacerbates the adversarial nature of this problem I hear patients discuss lawsuits often, but I hear doctors discuss it MUCH MORE often. Let’s face it, the problem isn’t patients. It isn’t even really third party payers (insurers, medicare, etc.), as despicable and profit-driven as they are. It is the medical industry’s history of putting up barriers to innovation in patient safety, electronic medical records, evidence-based practice, advocating for *real health system reform (such as payment reform that pays for quality… Read more »

DeterminedMD
Guest
DeterminedMD

Fortunately, I have not yet been named in a lawsuit as a physician, but, until you have been sued and especially if it is a frivolous action, don’t tell us as doctors to just advocate more and stop complaining. Advocating when you have been emasculated is just empty rhetoric.

By the way, having a shout out for your comment from Ms Mahar is not an ally I’d want if wanting colleagues to value my position.

Just my opinion.

Ram Krishnamoorthi
Guest
Ram Krishnamoorthi

Determined, I have been named in a lawsuit and have had a major complaint filed against me, and yes, both were “frivolous”… to us anyway. For doctors, lawsuit experiences are indeed embarrassing, stressful, heart-breaking sometimes, and cast so much self-doubt on how one could deserve this humiliation and stress. It is a horrible feeling to be impugned when you mean only to do the right thing. For patients, there are many different varieties of people who sue. Some will not be stopped in their pursuit to sue and make some money with the right lawyer. But many just want someone… Read more »

DeterminedMD
Guest
DeterminedMD

I stand corrected. That said, at this point where we as a profession have been relegated to being assembly line workers, maybe it is time to get people’s attention by, striking. Oh yeah, that opportunity has past, hasn’t it?!

By the way, if you aren’t aware or strongly support her writings, well, whatever.

AB
Guest
AB

I would urge Dr. Huggins to take the results of her Google search with the same grain of salt that she probably encourages her patients to do. The us-versus-them mentality (“I must be in the minority”) can be insidious and seductive. I’d also like to comment on the use of the patient’s words in this article. “I’d be lookin’ to sue you.” Dr. Huggins deliberately used the quote to start her piece and it is indeed evocative. I can imagine a mother with a deep Southern accent, a tight jaw, a jaded look in her eye, and a lot of… Read more »

Margalit Gur-Arie
Guest

Very nice comment.

If I may add, since I’ve been in those exam rooms a few times with my kids (not threatening to sue though), this is not the whole story now, is it?

The “athlete” was hellbent to go back and play, and mom knowing that there is very little she herself can do to stop the “athlete”, resorted to the best weapon she could think of to make sure the doctor stops the kid, in no uncertain terms, instead of recommending the best course of action with a bit of hesitation in her voice (imaginary or not).

steve
Guest
steve

I get something like this a couple of times a year. Some people seem to think that threatening to sue will cause me to be more careful. I just cancel their case and tell them to go find another doc.

Steve

Dena Rosko
Guest

Hi, I believe that changing how we communicate and organize health systems will reduce the need for constituents to feel that law suit represents their only feedback option. If we invite legal contribution from the onset, then we share the burden of care with the constituent instead of shouldering it solely on the clinician-as-expert. In Western culture, legal comm involves writing. Learn more at http://bit.ly/zF4jwc

Kindly,
Dena Rosko, MA-ComL

Brian Ahier
Guest

I believe tort reform must be a part of serious healthcare system transformation.