The perils of testifying in other doctors’ malpractice suits

Statue holding justice scales

Physicians face a difficult decision when deciding whether to testify in a colleague’s malpractice suit.

Giving evidence against colleagues can be socially and emotionally difficult, but doctors may not have much of an ethical or legal choice, according to the experts who spoke with Medscape on the topic. Many physicians feel strongly about protecting their own, but sometimes the circumstances of a particular case make it impossible to refuse to testify. In those cases, doctors have to make some tough choices:

  • Physicians who find themselves subpoenaed in malpractice suits have an obligation to testify, but that doesn’t make them immune from harm, according to James Lewis Griffith, Sr., a malpractice lawyer from Pennsylvania. “If you volunteer information that turns out to be inaccurate, you could face charges of libel or slander,” he warns.
  • Cases involving billing fraud can wind up exposing doctors to risk even if they do not actively take part in the criminal activity. “If you are aware of unethical practices, you have an affirmative duty to report that,” says Rick Boothman, chief risk officer at the University of Michigan Health System. Given the complexity of healthcare regulations, however, some physicians could end up violating statutes unwittingly, putting an entire practice at risk, adds Ronald W. Chapman, a healthcare attorney from Florida.
  • In medical board investigations and peer reviews, physicians frequently must cooperate as part of their employment agreement with a hospital or health system, per the article. The impetus behind such investigations can be questionable, however. “Some doctors will report a colleague out of conscience if there’s a patient safety issue,” says Chapman. “Other times, they might try to subvert a competitor.”
  • Whether a physician testifies by choice or not, it’s important to leave emotion at the door. “Stick to the facts, not your feelings,” advises Chapman.

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