So, you want to be a medical expert witness: Part 2

Financial Planning for Doctors

So, you followed the advice in Part 1 over at White Coat Investor and you talked to your colleague who does medical expert witness work.  You even created a fee-schedule and a CV to send to an attorney’s office after your colleague sent you a potential case.  To your surprise, they actually said yes.  You request a retainer, and they comply.  It all sounds great, but now what? How do you perform medical expert witness work without stepping in it?

Here are five helpful guidelines on how to stay out of trouble during your first medical expert witness case!  They surely weren’t told to me by the first attorney I worked with on my first case, but I was expected to know.

1) Do your homework, but only if asked.

When you are given a stack of medical documents to review, you can underline or highlight.  However, I would refrain from writing anything down or taking notes unless it is simply a factual timeline of what happened. Otherwise, you may be asked for the notes that you took while reviewing the case.

This also counts anything that you looked up while thinking through the case.  “Doctor, are you familiar with the ACEP clinical guidelines on how to handle psychiatric patients?”  If you recently reviewed those guidelines to help prepare for your case, that’s fair game.  It’s discoverable information.  So, is any literature review you perform.

The point here is this, make sure you ask the attorney hiring you if they want you to perform a literature review for the case.  Also, you should ask if they want you to write a report.

Typically, they will not want you to write anything down at first.  They will want you to discuss the case with them on the phone.  If after the discussion they feel a full report would be beneficial to them, then they will ask for it.  Or they may write up an affidavit with what you talked about in general terms.  You’ll need to get it notarized and send it back to them.

Of course, all of this (reviewing the documents, phone calls, getting things notarized) can be billed per your hourly rate according to your fee-schedule.

The point is this:
Don’t write anything down unless you have explicitly asked or been told to do so.

2) Review every page of what you are given

When you receive a request, you will often be told “Hey Dr. X, we are sending you these 10 files to review, but I think documents 1-3 really get to the salient points of the case.”

Don’t let this fool you for a second that you should only review documents 1-3.  When you get to give your opinion or to deposition/trial you are responsible for having reviewed everything that was sent to you.

This is good and bad.

The good is that you can bill for every hour that it takes to review every single page of each document that was sent to you.

The bad part is that you may have to review documentation that is completely frivolous to the case (i.e. secretarial documents or nursing documents that may not apply).  Hopefully, they really did send you the salient points. If you think something is missing that you may require, then ask for it.

3) Be ready to answer some tough questions

Beach at sunet
Expert witness work is not all beaches and rainbows. There are mistakes you need to avoid

Do you remember thinking that college, medical school, or residency interviews were tough?  Think again.  A deposition or a trial can be tough depending on how you approach it.  You need to be ready to answer some tough questions.

How much have you earned during this case?  What is the total amount of money you have earned as an expert witness? Can you please share how much you bill per hour for your work?  How many cases have you reviewed in the last four years?  Have you discussed this case with anyone else?  Please, explain why you are an expert in this matter.  How many plaintiff cases have you performed?  Defendant cases?

And, remember, all of this information is likely going to be shared with a jury who doesn’t earn this kind of money or have your experience.

The point is this.  You need to represent yourself and your work in the most confidential and professional manner that you can.  It is okay to be paid for this work, but be prepared to answer how much you charge in a deposition or in court.

How do you think the jury will respond if you say that you have a $15,000 retainer?

4) Do not discuss the case with anyone. 

This almost goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway because it is so important.  You cannot discuss the details of any case that you review with anyone.  Not your partners, not your residents, not your spouse.  Unless you really really want them to be subpoenaed.  And I am betting that you don’t.

Otherwise, the opposing lawyer may ask if you have discussed the case with anyone. Under oath you must, of course, share this information.  If you say that you have, then the court can bring that other person to testify.  If they are also an expert on the subject matter they may give a dissenting opinion to yours.  You can guess how much value your opinion would be worth at that point.

Also, your friend will likely be angry that they have to miss work because you couldn’t keep your mouth shut.  If you must ask someone’s opinion on something, then you must speak in hypothetical situations.  “Hey, Jen, do you think it would be reasonable to do X case under MAC sedation instead of securing the airway before this kind of procedure?”

5) You can say “no”

The last point I will end with is that it is okay to say “no”.

You can be working for the plaintiff (the one who created the law suit) or the defendant (the attorney representing the medical provider being sued).  When working for a plaintiff trying to bring a case against a doctor who you feel did not provide substandard care, you can say no.  “I don’t think the physician failed to meet the standard of care in this case for their training and the situation involved.”

As an aside, this is the question you are trying to answer:  “Did the provider involved provide a reasonable standard of care in the particular situation being discussed given the provider’s background, education, and experience?”

Said differently, would someone with the same education and background who practices in the same area think it is reasonable to do what was done?

It goes the same way for attorneys on the defense.  Sometimes, we as physicians make mistakes that are substandard in care.  If called by a defendant’s attorney to see what you think, it is also okay to tell that lawyer the same thing on the opposite side.  “I am sorry, but unless you can tell me ‘this or that’ were done, I cannot say that the standard of care was provided to the patient.”

However, if you say “yes” to a case, be prepared to provide a deposition and go to trial, if it is needed.

Take Home

I really enjoy this side hustle, and would recommend it to anyone interested.

That said, it does require a substantial amount of invested time.  I hope that if you venture into this forest, you find this post helpful in preventing you from getting tripped up by the weeds.

For those out there that have done medical expert witness work, is there anything else you would advise for someone just getting started?  Are there other pitfalls you have experienced?  What questions do you have?  Leave a comment below.


15 thoughts on “So, you want to be a medical expert witness: Part 2”

  1. Very interesting two part post. The time commitment sounds like a lot for a person who is currently in full time practice. Did you ever have internal struggles against testifying for plaintiffs? I mean, we’ve all been in less than ideal situations when taking care of patients and I can see how some lawyer tries to make a physician look like an incompetent jerk when dealing with impossible situations as a doctor. Or can you look at the case and agree to proceed when the doctor clearly did something way outside the standard of care?

    • I would only work for that side of the case if it was absolutely indefensible.

      The alternate is also true, I would only defend a case if I felt like I could do that. If they failed to meet the standards of care accepted by pretty much everyone and it’s black/white I would (and have ) said I wouldn’t take the case.

  2. As mentioned in part I comments, I was involved in 2 cases as an expert witness and luckily both did not go to trial.

    Even though there is more money for going to trial, it can’t be a great feeling having opposing counsel question your intelligence, decision, etc which of course they will trying to discredit you.

  3. I have done some expert witness work as an engineer. Everything you described is the same. Seven hour depositions on camera with a hostile lawyer are a unique experience! Of course lawyers are hopelessly outclassed by real experts, whether engineer or doctor.

  4. I had the exact experience you described in #1. I was most surprised about being asked about notes taken and literature reviewed. Also, be prepared during deposition to answer the same question multiple times phrased slightly differently. Keep cool and provide consistent answers!

  5. (1) Don’t be afraid to ask for an hourly rate of what your think you are worth, and ask for a retainer of at least 5-10 hours. Get the retainer before you even look at the case or give an opinion, even over the phone.

    (2) A $15,000 retainer (not that I ever ask for that much) is not that much on a case which could settle for several million. Juries get that, and most of the time the case never goes to trial anyway (it is settled).

    (3) Don’t be embarrassed to answer questions about how much you are making on the case. See (2) above. You are worth it.

    (4) Don’t be afraid to be deposed or go to trial. We MDs explain things to laypeople all the time, every day. This is really just like that in many ways, and if you treat it like that, you will do fine.

  6. I plan on taking the SEAK course on this next year. For now i have contacted some local attorney offices and malpractice carriers. Each said they will put me on their “list”. Is that just lip service? Any other advice on how to break into this? Thanks

    • The best way to get work is through word of mouth. The fastest way may be to get on a list.

      Breaking in can be tough sometimes. But once you do, providing good work is the best way to keep it coming.

      I am personally not any professional list, but don’t so medical expert witness work all of the time. Just when it arises naturally

  7. I have reviewed 3 cases and made the mistake of not getting a retainer in advance for any of them. I haven’t been paid for 2 of them, both from the same malpractice insurance company. It’s been 4 months since my invoice was submitted. I was told “check is in the mail” and “we are looking into it.” Any advice? I realize now this was a rookie mistake and I won’t make it again.

    • Yeah, it can be really annoying. It took me about three months to get one of mine. I don’t know that there is a whole lot you can do other than call and email them weekly to check in, partly to remind them that it is unacceptable.

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