Thursday, March 19, 2009

Malpractice II

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 2 Cor 4:7-9.

A Christian radiologist I know was sued for incorrectly reading an MRI. After several weeks of careful consideration and research into the accusation, he decided that he had made a mistake. An expert was then found by his attorney who was willing to testify that the error was nonetheless within the normal standard of care, and not malpractice. Again, he thought about it, and did research. He decided his attorney’s expert was probably wrong. He went to his attorney and told him to settle the case, but his attorney refused. This time after careful prayer and thought, he again went to his attorney and told him that if he took the stand, he would become a witness for the injured patient. Christ had commanded honesty and he could do no less. The certainty in the eyes of the physician and the reference to his faith forced the attorney to settle the case for the limits of the policy, one million dollars.

The physician, my friend, came to me two years after the suit settled. His insurance had gone up in price, and he had suffered some professional embarrassment from his public admission of responsibility. He wondered what the meaning of it all was: Why had God brought him this grief? He was not certain he was competent. He had begun to second guess himself all of the time. He wondered if medical practice was really what he should be doing. Maybe he should “retire to teaching.”

I told him two things that changed his thinking and put a spring back into his step. First, I reminded him that only incompetent physicians feel they never make mistakes, and that he actually had a great reputation for being competent. But more importantly, I told him something he did not know, that I had heard a month before without making the connection to my friend. I had recently seen the attorney who had represented the patient in the suit against my friend. (I had known this attorney for years, and had not really respected him. He had said he was a Christian, but had behaved badly toward his family and wife.) When I saw him, I knew something had changed. He was back in his church, had rededicated his life to Christ, and had reconciled with his wife. I asked him what had happened. He told me about this Christian doctor he had sued, a radiologist, who could have hidden behind his expert and his lawyer, but had not. This doctor had done something he had never seen another doctor do in all his years as an attorney: Admit he was wrong. When he found out it was because of the doctor’s Christian faith, the attorney began to look at his own faith, and he realized something: He had not admitted his own wrong before God or his wife. He was convicted by what my friend had done; he had seen real faith in action.
–Curt Harris, M.D.

The medical liability system is broken beyond simple repair. We, as doctors will likely be caught up in its inequities. Major reform is needed and inevitable. While any reform must balance a patient’s rights against the cost to the provider (and thus the cost of healthcare), the unaddressed issues of equity, fairness and justice make most current proposals fatally flawed.

Whatever the circumstances in our own involvement over a malpractice issue, a Christian physician must remember that medicine is a calling from God, and our first duty is to the patients who trust their care to us. Our patients are not “the enemy.” We must remember that we are all our own worst enemies, and we should always do what is right and true, rather than compromise our faith. While being sued for malpractice is a painful situation, the opportunity for growth in our Christian life can be unsurpassed.

Christ taught us “all of the law” in two statements: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Do we really need more?

Dear God,
Let me not live in fear. Let me practice such that I do my best with my individual care and my best in setting up a system that may protect my patients from mistakes. Then, let me trust in You and face any malpractice suit like a child of the King. Amen

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