Patients Who Won't Sue Their Doctors -- Even When They Could

Mark Crane

Disclosures

November 25, 2013

In This Article

When Bad Things Happen to Patients

Patients experience adverse outcomes due to medical negligence every day. Although physicians have legitimate worries about being sued, the fact is that fewer than 10% of those patients and families will actually file a malpractice suit.[1]

Why do so many patients with valid claims decline to sue physicians and medical institutions?

Patients generally sue because they suffered an injury. They may have lost income and can't afford their medical care without an award or settlement. But a tipping point in deciding whether to bring suit depends on the patient's perception of his or her doctor, say malpractice experts.

"There are some individuals who are ready to file suit at the drop of a hat," says Gerald B. Hickson, MD, Senior Vice President for Quality, Patient Safety and Risk Prevention at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. "Luckily, most patients are reluctant to sue and are willing to forgive caregivers if they feel they've been respected. The doctor doesn't have to be all warm and fuzzy. It's about modeling respect for the patient, being candid, and answering questions.

"When patients feel a lack of respect, it increases the likelihood of an avoidable adverse outcome," he said. "Doctors who don't show respect for patients also don't model respect for other members of the healthcare team. And medicine is a team effort. So if there's a poor outcome, the family is predisposed to filing a lawsuit."

The axiom that patients don't sue physicians they like is overly broad but has some truth to it. How physicians communicate with patients, especially after an adverse outcome, can determine whether they are sued, despite the level of injury or their own liability. Numerous studies have shown that physicians who are candid with patients and spend more time answering questions are less likely to be sued.[2]

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