A medical malpractice lawsuit can be overwhelming, affecting physicians and other clinicians both personally and professionally. Even before the resolution of the lawsuit, the stress from the litigation process can impact their practice and potentially their family, and may even diminish the prospects of a successful outcome to their case. Although 34 percent of physicians have been named in a malpractice claim, a lawsuit is still personal and is a contributing factor to physician burnout.
Risk Management Strategies for Litigation Prevention
Claims can occur for a number of different reasons. Often, medical negligence is alleged to have resulted from clinical error; however, systems issues such as poor documentation and communication are often contributing factors in claims. An organization’s failure to develop, implement, monitor, and revise a quality or risk management program can increase liability exposures and lead to increased malpractice claims. For the clinicians involved, this can lead to high levels of stress that can lead to physician burnout.
There are many ways to decrease the likelihood of a claim. NORCAL policyholders have access to a broad selection of risk management resources in the policyholder portal MyACCOUNT that can help mitigate risk:
- Over 100 risk management resource documents
- Claims Rx risk management publication
- Live presentations
- Article: “High-Risk Issues Associated with Lawsuits: What To Do About Them”
The Wide-Ranging Impacts of Litigation Stress on Clinicians
Even with a strong risk management program at your practice, malpractice lawsuits may still happen. From the moment you receive notice of a lawsuit, everything changes. A medical malpractice claim affects all aspects of your life. You may begin to notice that you are having difficulty sleeping or eating. Your interactions with family members, peers, and patients may be challenging. You may even have feelings of despair, anger, or embarrassment.
The degree of stress you experience during litigation can sometimes even be so overwhelming it becomes what is known in medical literature as medical malpractice stress syndrome (MMSS). MMSS has symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and manifests both physical and psychological symptoms. As a result of this emotional strain, litigation stress—left unaddressed—can lead to clinician burnout and affect the outcome of your claim.
The stress of litigation that can manifest itself in MMSS leaves you more vulnerable to breakdowns in attorney-client communication, reduced ability to listen carefully to your attorney’s advice, a level of anxiety that interferes with your decision-making process, and an increased likelihood of subsequent medical errors.
This heightened state of stress may also affect your ability to participate productively in your defense and make a good witness on your own behalf during deposition or trial. This diminishes the prospects of a successful outcome to your claim.
Tips for Reducing Litigation Stress and Reducing Physician Burnout
To help prevent the wide-ranging personal and professional impact of litigation stress, clinicians need to recognize their vulnerability to litigation stress and actively seek the support they need. With this in mind, the following resources can promote better understanding of the stress of litigation and its impact on clinician burnout.
1. Understand the Effects of Litigation on Your Practice
Involvement in a medical malpractice claim may cause you to re-evaluate your practice of medicine and adopt “defensive medicine” tactics.
This article includes a discussion and determination of the accepted standard of care in primary care malpractice cases from the perspective of both hired physician experts and community physicians. A review of this article gives perspective on quality of care and acceptable standard of care in medical malpractice cases.
This study discusses how the fear of further litigation and damage to reputation after malpractice lawsuits affect the treatment patterns of physicians (specifically, in this study, obstetricians).
This article discusses the practice of defensive medicine and how it is used with the aim of avoiding litigation.
2. Learn About the Litigation Process
Coping with a lawsuit can be a challenge—few clinicians would know exactly what to anticipate. Understanding what to expect from the litigation process and what will be expected from you is one strategy to reduce your stress level.
NORCAL Group offers the Litigation Support for Healthcare Professionals series to assist policyholders through the litigation process. The series consists of five booklets:
- How to Prepare for Your Initial Meeting
- Understanding the Litigation Process
- How to Prepare for Your Deposition
- How to Prepare for Your Trial
- How to Prepare for Your Deposition (Non-Defendant Witness)
NORCAL Group insureds can access these materials in MyACCOUNT behind the Claims link.
The following third-party resources provide additional information about the litigation process and offer advice for coping with the stress associated with a lawsuit:
- What You Need to Know When You’re Being Sued (American Academy of Pediatrics)
- You’ve Been Sued for Malpractice: Now What? (Medical Economics)
3. Recognize the Frequency of Medical Liability Lawsuits
Understanding the occurrence of litigation and common reactions to being sued will help dispel the initial feelings of despair and reduce your stress level. It may give you some comfort to know that you’re not alone in being involved in medical malpractice litigation.
This report examines the frequency of medical malpractice lawsuits and provides insight from survey results of 4,137 physicians in more than 25 specialties. It discusses why physicians were sued, the outcomes of those lawsuits, and how the lawsuits changed the way the physicians practice medicine.
This article presents estimates of claims frequency for all physicians and how age, gender, specialty, practice type, and ownership status affect claims frequency.
Getting sued is a more common occurrence for physicians than one might think, with 34 percent having been named in a malpractice claim in their career. This article discusses the frequency of lawsuits and the significant toll that they take on physicians and the healthcare system.
Some medical specialties are targeted more than others in lawsuits. This study published in The New England Journal of Medicine shows which specialties are frequent targets.
4. Seek Support to Cope with the Stress of Litigation
If you’re involved in litigation, it’s important to remember that you are not alone and that there are resources available to you to help you cope with the stress.
Litigation Stress Coaching
As part of our commitment to our policyholders, NORCAL is partnering with Winning Focus to provide Litigation Stress Coaching to help policyholders cope with the stress of litigation. Retained by defense counsel for the purpose of preparing for litigation, Litigation Stress Coaching provides the tools that empower you to deal effectively with the stress associated with a medical malpractice lawsuit, enabling you to more effectively participate in your defense. Because it does not treat any medical or psychological condition, Litigation Stress Coaching is non-reportable. Furthermore, the facts of the case are not discussed during the coaching sessions; instead, the coach focuses on your feelings dealing with the impact of the suit. The litigation stress coach does not keep any notes detailing the sessions.
Physician Litigation Stress Resource Center
The Physician Litigation Stress Resource Center is a not-for-profit website providing healthcare professionals with resources to cope with the personal and professional stress created by a medical malpractice case or adverse outcome. This site directs clinicians to articles, books, and websites addressing the process of litigation, suggests strategies for coping with the stress of litigation, and identifies resources that may provide support for physicians and other healthcare practitioners throughout the ordeal of litigation.
Coping with a Medical Malpractice Suit, available from the Physician Litigation Stress Resource Center, uses survey and interview data to show how physicians react to accusations of medical malpractice and the strategies they use to cope with the emotional trauma these accusations cause.