Adapted from Brazeau C. Coping with the Stress of Being Sued. Fam Prac Manag. 2001; 8(5):41-44
The summons is often the first clue for most physicians that he or she is being sued. Normal reactions range from shock to disbelief to outright denial. This is usually followed by several weeks of feelings of depression, anger, loss of control, and even physical illness. These feelings may occur even if the physician involved does not believe that any negligence actually occurred. In these initial stages, it is important to learn about the details of the litigation process and work closely with a lawyer. Physicians should also recognize that emotional turmoil is normal and avoid excessive self-blame, which can be detrimental to both morale and the ability to take corrective action when necessary.
Following the summons, discovery begins. During this period, information about the case will be gathered from both parties. Depositions will be requested, in which the defending physician must respond to verbal questions from the plaintiff’s attorney under oath. Physicians should expect frequent interruptions to their schedules during this time and also expect to feel surges of guilt, self-blame, anger, and isolation each time they are called to revisit the case for questioning. This is all normal. Even though physicians should heed the legal advice not to discuss the details of the case with others, it is acceptable and frequently therapeutic to talk though the feelings experience during a lawsuit with close friends and family.
TRIAL AND SETTLEMENT
Once all of the relevant information has been gathered, both sides will need to come to an agreement on whether or not to settle or proceed to trial. Whether or not the physician was at fault does not determine the decision to settle. Multiple factors contribute to this decision, including how well the case could be defended in terms of the documentation in the medical record, available witnesses, and possible juror sympathy toward the defendant. Approximately six percent of all lawsuits eventually proceed to trial. Physicians may find that facing the defendant and his or her family exacerbates feelings of guilt and shame. Living in the public eye if the case proceeds to trial can also intensify these feelings. During this time period, physicians should rely on the same coping strategies used in the months leading up to the trial. This can also be a helpful time to carefully and objectively examine any acknowledged mistakes and construct a plan of action. If mistakes go unaddressed, they can create doubt and lack of confidence in clinical skills for many years following, regardless of the outcome of the trial.
For as long as two years following the conclusion of a lawsuit, physicians report continued feelings of job strain, shame, and doubt. They may be plagued with persistent negative memories, cynicism, burnout, and a desire to leave the specialty. Taking an active role in malpractice prevention can be one method of dealing with these feelings. Improving communication skills, chart documentation, or administrative issues can decrease the incidence of litigation and provide a constructive outlet for negative energy. Throughout this time, it is important to continue to maintain a life balance and close social support networks.
RESOURCES ON LITIGATION STRESS