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Support group to help those facing malpractice suits

Linda Singer found out she was being sued for medical malpractice on her lunch break one day. She sobbed for an hour, then pulled herself together and saw the rest of her patients that day.

On top of revisiting the sadness she experienced when her patient died, she went through fear of and confusion about the legal system. As the case wore on, Singer also found she was isolated from her peers and colleagues when she needed them most.

“I cared for her deeply,” Singer said last week, more than seven years after the patient’s death and four years after the lawsuit began. “ . . When things like that happen, doctors feel the same things other people would feel. We’re human beings. Whether a death is expected or unexpected, it takes something from you.”

To then have her medical decision-making called into question was “unnerving, unsettling, upsetting, frustrating,” she said.

Singer said the stress and time demands of the malpractice suit were part of why she decided to semiretire from primary care practice earlier than she had planned.

About a year ago, Singer reached out to the New Hampshire Medical Society about creating a resource for doctors going through malpractice suits, where they could talk with their peers in a safe environment about how they were feeling and coping with the process.

That group is scheduled to start meeting in February.

Doctors involved in medical malpractice suits are often advised by their attorneys – or required by their insurers – not to speak about the case with anyone, because records of those conversations could possibly be pulled into court as evidence.

They can speak with licensed therapists, as those conversations are protected by medical privacy rules, but the peer-to-peer support Singer thought would be so valuable in her experience hasn’t been available.

Because it will be led by a licensed psychologist, the new group will be protected from legal exposure.

It wasn’t hard to convince members of the society’s leadership council that this would be a worthy pursuit.

“In a society where it feels like we are always looking for someone to blame, it’s so easy to forget that we’re all human beings,” said Scott Colby, executive director of the state medical society. “I’ve seen the emotional toll this takes on physicians. . . . We see this as something we as a medical society can do to protect access to physicians, so they wouldn’t be so discouraged that they’d leave practice.”

Since August 2005, 609 malpractice suits have been filed in New Hampshire. Cases took on average 660 days from filing to disposition, according to information from the medical society.

Oge Young, an obstetrician/gynecologist and member of the society’s leadership council, says he knows three doctors in his specialty who left medicine early in their careers after being sued, even though each was successfully defended.

Michael Lehman, an attorney at Sulloway and Hollis, said in the 35 years he’s been practicing, he’s seen some malpractice cases linger in the legal process for five years.

“I have had clients who haven’t had a full night’s sleep the whole time, that’s how heavily something like this weighs on some of them,” he said.

During the three years her case progressed through the legal system, Singer asked all of the members of her defense team if there was any way she could talk to another doctor who had gone through the process.

“People looked at me and said, ‘That’s just not usually done,” she said.

Now, she hopes to join the group when it starts next year to share what she learned.

“The overall emotional roller coaster you’re on when you get sued is something that people who have been there can help you with,” she said.

She’ll be able to share which parts of the process she had worried about needlessly, and what she wishes she had done differently.

“I know what sort of skills you need to get through and the behaviors that aren’t productive. Hoping it will just go away makes you not as involved in your defense as you should be, and I can share with them the toll it took on my work and my personal life,” she said.

Colby said he expects the group will include about six or eight doctors at a time, though he doesn’t expect to follow up.

In fact, other than hiring the facilitator, Concord-based family psychologist Bill Gunn, the society’s involvement in the program will be referring interested physicians to it. Colby’s office won’t track attendance or what is discussed, to honor and protect the doctor-patient privilege.

Gunn, who has worked with doctors going through lawsuits in individual therapy before, will collect a nominal co-payment from each group participant, who will commit to attending at least six sessions over three months.

What those sessions will look like isn’t clearly defined yet.

He said he can’t generalize the individual process each physician might go through in processing medical accidents and malpractice suits, but that what has helped some physicians he’s worked with is confronting their own expectations about mistakes.

“Physicians particularly don’t want to make mistakes that could cause harm to somebody. In some ways, we as a society put physicians on a pedestal of infallibility that I think is not fair,” he said.

“You have to know that mistakes can happen, and that you have to rely on other people. There’s a lot of talk about looking at systems, because often when a mistake is made, it means there was a break in the system. That’s the thing for many doctors once they get through the process, to realize I need a team around me so we can watch each other and catch each other before mistakes happen.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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