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Coping with malpractice suits and medical board reviews

If you have ever been the target of a malpractice suit or medical board investigation, you’re not alone. You’re also not alone if it left you surprised, shocked, angered, stressed or depressed.

More physicians get sued for malpractice than don’t. According to Medscape’s 2019 malpractice report, 59% of physicians have been named in a suit, and these suits aren’t always responses to legitimate errors. In fact, physicians rarely feel the complaints are valid. The result is that the legal actions take most physicians by surprise.

Surprise and stress

As the report illustrated, there is a large disconnect between the ways that physicians and patients think about malpractice. This is evidenced by the facts that:

  • 52% of physicians reported they were “very surprised” when they were sued
  • 83% claimed their lawsuits weren’t merited

But physicians aren’t just surprised by these lawsuits. They can suffer tremendous stress, especially if the suit also triggers a medical board review. You might become depressed. A lawsuit might even make it hard for you to trust your patients. If so, you wouldn’t be alone. The report said 25% of physicians stopped trusting patients after they were sued.

Coping tips

A 2001 paper published in the Western Journal of Medicine explored the reasons physicians react as they do to malpractice suits. It observed that physicians are highly self-critical and sensitive to threats against their sense of honor. The fact you’re cognitively aware that malpractice suits are just a part of doing business doesn’t keep you from feeling that you have somehow failed.

This stresses the importance of developing good coping mechanisms. The study recommended nearly two dozen, divided between three key strategies:

  • Find social support. Though your attorney may advise you not to speak about the details of your case, you may be able to find one or more trustworthy and sympathetic listeners.
  • Regain your sense of mastery and control. The study noted that lawsuits often challenge a physician’s standard feeling of control. It pointed out 16 different steps you might take to balance your desire for control against the legal events outside of your control.
  • Assign proper meaning to the suit. Physicians who see malpractice suits as accusations of “failure” are more likely to struggle. You want to step back and gain perspective.

Naturally, these tips can prove even more valuable when a malpractice suit triggers a medical board review.

Focus on positive action

The Western Journal study concludes with suggestions for counteracting the negative emotions that stem from malpractice suits and medical board reviews. It recommends that physicians learn about the shape of their litigation, find good attorneys and focus on the different pieces they can control.

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