The author reports no financial relationships relevant to this article.
“Immediately after the event I was a wreck. I vaguely remember talking to the family; I don’t know if I was much use to them.… That night I got drunk. It was the only way I could sleep. A sensitive colleague came and sat with me.”1
As an ObGyn, it is almost certain that you will be sued sometime during your career. Specific actions that I’ll describe in this article can help you deal with the stress associated with the adverse event that precipitates the lawsuit and the lawsuit itself. To begin, remember:
- Anticipation is the best defense
- Knowledge is power
- Action counters passivity
- A supportive environment is essential.
How can you anticipate litigation?
What is the risk? No nationwide reporting system tracks the incidence of medical malpractice claims. A recent survey by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, however, found that 89% of practicing ObGyns had been sued at least once in their career, with an average of 2.62 claims for every ObGyn.2 Because a claim usually takes years to resolve, a substantial number of ObGyns are involved in litigation at any one time.
You can successfully anticipate litigation by maintaining familiarity with your state’s statute of limitations—usually, this period is 2 to 3 years after discovery of the incident, with exceptions for children, the disabled, and designated special circumstances. If a plaintiff’s case is not filed within this time, a disputed outcome can never be the subject of a malpractice claim.
ObGyns are keenly aware of the exception that extends the time period during which a case may be filed on behalf of a child after discovery of the alleged injury. Many states set 8 years as the cutoff for filing a claim; others, such as Illinois, extend the period for as long as 2 years after a child’s 18th birthday. This long tail of vulnerability creates unpredictability for insurers, who must estimate the relationship between current premiums and potential payouts (often in the distant future), resulting in high premiums for ObGyns’ insurance. More importantly, it creates an undercurrent of anxiety and uncertainty for those ObGyns who must contemplate defending themselves in court for incidents that occurred in the distant past.
Listen to your feelings whenever you suspect that a patient is dissatisfied or that a bad outcome may lead to a claim, and take appropriate action. Reexamine your risk management procedures and discuss your concerns with your risk manager. Because it may take years for a case to be filed and many more for it to be adjudicated, possibly by trial, your best defense is clear, accurate, comprehensive, and contemporaneous documentation of the situation. Any later review of the case will be based on records that, if clearly kept, will be easily and unambiguously interpreted despite the passage of time.
Responding to an adverse event
The severity of the outcome, the nature of your relationship with the patient, and the degree of your responsibility for an adverse event contribute to the intensity of your initial emotional response. If a mistake caused the event, your reaction may be even more severe.3-6 Whatever the specifics of the event, you may ruminate about your role and degree of responsibility (TABLE 1).
Questions that might nag you after a “bad” outcome
The 3 “must-do” actions after an adverse event
|Medical steps |