Things don't always turn out the way you hope they will. Most people understand that, but some can't accept it. They look for someone to blame. That's true in all areas of life.
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And so it is in medicine. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, the outcome is not positive. Yet patients want and expect cure and recovery. When this expectation isn't met, some patients and families turn to the legal system.
Physicians and other caregivers typically go into medicine with the honorable and noble goal of helping people. So when our judgment is questioned, it can be devastating.
One of my colleagues, a respected clinician, evaluated a patient for a specific problem. All of the appropriate studies were ordered. A careful history and physical examination were obtained, but there was no obvious reason for the patient's problem. Follow up was recommended. The patient later developed a serious problem, one that could not have been detected earlier. The family filed a lawsuit.
As a result, my colleague lost confidence, became isolated and considered leaving the profession. In this difficult situation, it's important to keep perspective. If we know that we did the right thing, even if the outcome wasn't ideal, it can help lighten the heavy burden of remorse. It's also important to take care of ourselves physically, psychologically and spiritually during this intensely stressful time.
I don't mean to suggest that true negligence shouldn't be addressed. However, the numbers seem out of balance when you consider that nearly all doctors in specialties such as obstetrics and general surgery will face at least one malpractice claim during their careers.
Of course in our litigious society, medicine isn't the only profession subject to lawsuits. If you've experienced a similar professional crisis, please weigh in with your suggestions for dealing with these thorny issues.
Oct. 11, 2011