3 reasons patients won't sue doctors

Many doctors fear being sued for malpractice and for good reason. A 2010 report from the American Medical Association indicated that nearly all physicians would be sued by a patient sometime during their careers. However, it's not a given that injured patients or their family members will sue after a bad outcome. A recent article from Medscape reveals some of the key reasons patients will resist bringing even a strong case to court:

Getting the doctor's respect. "Luckily, most patients are reluctant to sue and are willing to forgive caregivers if they feel they've been respected," Gerald B. Hickson, M.D., senior vice president for quality, patient safety and risk prevention at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, told Medscape. "The doctor doesn't have to be all warm and fuzzy. It's about modeling respect for the patient, being candid, and answering questions." In particular, doctors who spend time explaining what to expect during the recovery process may evoke less litigiousness from patients.

The potential reward is too small. Patients often want to sue, even reluctantly, because they need the money to overcome financial hardship caused by the injury. But the top reason patients don't bring lawsuits, even those with merit, is that they can't find lawyers willing to take the case, James Lewis Griffith Sr., a veteran malpractice attorney in Philadelphia, told Medscape. "The average case costs at least $50,000, and often more, for the plaintiff's attorney to put together. If the recovery isn't at least 6 figures, the lawyer can't afford to take the case," he said. "That's why out of every 20 patients injured by a doctor, the odds are that only one or two will be accepted by a lawyer."

Expressions of sympathy. "People sue when trust is broken between the family and provider," said Doug Wojcieszak, founder of Sorry Works, a program that trains healthcare providers and attorneys on how to disclose errors or poor outcomes. "When there is early disclosure of an error accompanied by empathy, it's easier for the patient to be forgiving." However, even in states in which physician apologies are protected by law, you should be aware of several caveats, such as the difference between expressing sympathy and giving an admission of fault.

To learn more:
- read the article from Medscape