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The Physician Philosopher Podcast

TPP 46: Physician Lawsuit Fear: How to Beat It

With 30-40% of physicians being sued on average, this is a topic that needs to be discussed in terms of how we can help doctors mentally and emotionally handle the fear of a lawsuit. If you have ever been in this situation or if you are living in fear that you someday will be, this article and episode are for you. 

Larry Keller

In this article I will walk you through how you can beat the fear of a lawsuit so that this one idea that maybe has happened to you, or the fear that it may happen in the future, does not impact how you practice medicine and live life. 

Today’s Thought

Today I want you to keep this thought in mind as we explore how to beat the fear of a lawsuit. 

The thought is this:

Trading tomorrow’s possible misery for today’s guaranteed pain is not the answer to things that you are worried about. 

How Common Is It For Doctors To Get Sued?

Well, according to the American Medical Association, 30-40% of physicians have been sued depending on whether they are an employed physician or solo practitioner. With solo-practitioners have higher rates of lawsuits. On top of that, you have an 18% chance of being named in 2 lawsuits in your career.

These numbers aren’t low.  And so it makes sense that we spend time coaching physicians inside of Alpha Coaching Experience (ACE) about this topic.

So, the very first thing I want to do is to normalize the anxiety, dread, and fear of getting sued as a physician. It is SUPER common. And we see a ton of concern about this from clients in the ACE.

The First Time Being Named In A Lawsuit

I remember the first time I was aware that one of my attendings had been named in a lawsuit.  It was a medication error in the operating room.  And the impact of being named in this lawsuit seemed devastating for the person I knew.

It took over their thoughts and their emotions.  It also impacted how they showed up at work, the decisions they made, and became an ever-present enemy.

And this isn’t uncommon.  Many doctors wind up in coaching or therapy due to being named in a lawsuit or claim.  

In fact, it has come up multiple times when we have Alpha clients who are concerned about future lawsuits.

One of the first group calls I ever did in ACE was about a doctor who dreaded going in for shifts at the hospital. Not because they didn’t like medicine, but because they were constantly concerned about getting sued.

This led them to chart for hours and hours (way more than was necessary), just in case they were ever named in a lawsuit they would have the proper documentation to protect them.

See, this physician had told themselves that if they “just document enough” that it will prevent them from getting sued.

We have had multiple other clients who think that if they just work more, read more, and prepare harder… that they can avoid getting named in a claim or lawsuit.

Others feel that if they master the closed claims database for their specialty, then they can avoid the mistakes that other people have made.

And when you listen to these thought-processes, they seem to make sense on the surface, right?  

Just chart better. Work harder. Take good care of patients. Understand where others have gone wrong and then you won’t get sued. 

Right? 

Flawed Logic Of Preventing A Lawsuit As A Doctor 

The thought that goes on in this model is often something like “If I just do X, Y, or Z… I won’t get sued”

And while that seems factual, it actually is not.   

When I coach clients, I always tell them that my job is to be a curious skeptic. Curious about the story that you are giving me (and yourself) and a skeptic about anything coming out of your mouth. 

Essentially, my job is to not believe anything you say, because while your brain is telling you that what you think is a fact, it is actually often quite the opposite.

For example, let’s examine these thoughts that if we just work harder, chart more thoroughly, and understand prior claims that we won’t get sued.

Is this really true?

The answer is “no”.  And there are two ways to disprove this thought process.

First, we all know people who practice great medicine, take wonderful care of patients, document thoroughly, and know the prior claims database and they have still been named in a lawsuit. In other words, you can do everything “right” and still get named in a claim.

On the other hand, we know the opposite is also true.  Physicians are human, and we all know other doctors who have made errors, mistakes, or judgement calls, that if viewed in the proper light, might be worthy of being named in a lawsuit. Yet, they don’t get named.  

So, it turns out that doing all of these things will not prevent a lawsuit.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that you shouldn’t chart thoroughly, or read through prior claims, or work hard at work to take wonderful care of patients.

Those are all – in and of themself – good things.

What I am saying is that the threat of a possible future lawsuit should not wage a war of anxiety and fear over your medical practice.  

And this is ultimately the real problem. How we respond to the fear of something happening in the future.  And this is where the real work is to be done.  

The Solution

It is a fact that practicing medicine carries the risk of being named in a lawsuit.  

But similarly, the possibility of a lawsuit is also true every time you drive your car or your kid drives one of your cars. You have the risk of a personal injury or property damage lawsuit. Yet, you likely don’t spend every waking moment behind the wheel afraid of that possibility.

So, it is a circumstantial fact that practicing medicine always has and likely always will have the possibility of a lawsuit. The only way to completely avoid that situation is to not practice medicine, but I bet you will still drive a car from time to time. So, even then, you cannot completely avoid a lawsuit.  

The answer is not to try and do everything you can to avoid one. As we have discussed, even if you do that it is unlikely that it will not 100% protect you from being named.

The solution, on the other hand, is to look at how we are letting the possibility of some negative future event control our current state.

There are a few things that can be worked on when it comes to this fear.

 

Dealing With The Anxiety And Fear Of A Possible Lawsuit 

Just because you have a feeling does not mean that you have to succumb to it or give into it.

There are three options when it comes to a negative feeling. We can resist it, buffer it (exchange that feeling for another that makes us temporarily “feel better”), or, the best option, we can allow our feelings. 

When you allow your feelings you just simply notice that it is there. Be with it. Sit with it in silence. Meditate on it.  And do nothing.  Just exist with it.

When it comes to this, I’ll often walk our clients in ACE through an exercise where we describe what it feels like to them, and then point out at the end of the exercise that, in the end, it is just a feeling.  

When it arises outside of a coaching session, I encourage you to put pen and paper to do this process themselves. And this works really well, actually.

The reason is that, as “meta” as it sounds, we are not our brains. We are the watchers watching our brains. So, when we notice what our brains are doing, we get to say “Well, geez, thanks for that thought and feeling brain.”

When we “allow” our feelings to exist and “note” that they are there without giving into resisting or buffering them, that is where the real power exists.

Not Allowing A Fear Of The Past (Or Future) Control Your Present State

There is a common quote out there that goes: 

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift. That’s why they call it present.” 

And I think this is a really powerful idea that we only get one present moment at a time. We can’t get the past back. And we cannot guarantee our future path either.

This is important, because many of us let our past traumas (like being named in a lawsuit) dictate our future feelings and actions. Others of us let the possibility of a lawsuit in the future dictate our current feelings and actions.

The irony is that when we do this, we are exchanging the possibility of future problems for our current misery.

So instead of living in the here and now and knowing that someday in the future there might be pain. We are guaranteeing the pain and misery right now.  

That doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?

So, this is the work of coaching. To try and help people sort through these thoughts and to see if they can allow themselves to have fear and anxiety without buffering them or resisting them.

And also to help them determine what thought that is more helpful for them to have about lawsuits. A thought that would allow them to practice medicine without the fear and dread that they currently have.  

We can choose to let those past events dictate our future, or we can choose to understand our past while we simultaneously refuse to let it dictate how we feel and operate moving forward. 

 

The Summary

Doctors getting sued, being named in lawsuits, is a very important topic. And really common for physicians. 

However, you should remember that you don’t have to let your anxiety, or fear, win. You can sit in the same room with that feeling without resisting it or giving into it by buffering that feeling away.

Once you can tolerate living in that space, there is work to be done to no longer allow your possible future or past traumatic events dictate how you feel, act, and show up as a physician. That’s what the power of coaching can help do. 

You’ve got this and you aren’t alone.  

This is a topic we coach on a lot inside the Alpha Coaching Experience (ACE) so that physicians don’t have to be stuck in fear. If you are interested in learning more about ACE you can do that at thephysicianphilosopher.com/waitlist.

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