Part 1: Getting sued feels bad, but the results usually aren’t—an exploration of a fundamental contradiction.

It’s a letter that no one wants to receive, no matter the profession: a letter of intent to sue. At best, getting sued is a time-consuming exercise in defense of oneself; at worst, a lawsuit can damage reputations, derail careers, and impair feelings of self-worth.

Doctors are the single-most sued profession in the world. A study conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011 showed that by age 45, more than 30% of doctors in low-risk specialties and 88% in high-risk specialties are subject to a malpractice claim. By the age of 65, those numbers jump to a staggering 75% for low-risk specialties and 99% for high-risk specialties.

In other words, a doctor is likely going to get sued at some point during his or her career. Some doctors have described this as “the price of doing medicine” and take a grin-and-bear it approach. While others have described the emotional toll litigation takes on doctors as MMSS or “Medical Malpractice Stress Syndrome”, and have compared its effects to PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

If there is a calm at the center of this litigious hurricane, it is this: According to JAMA, nearly half of all medical malpractice claims were dismissed outright before ever going to trial. Of the half that went to the trial process, about 40% were settled before a verdict was reached. That leaves about 10% that are actually decided by a jury. Of that 10%, the overwhelming majority of those cases were decided in favor of the physician being sued.

Approximately 3-7% of all cases end in a verdict for the plaintiff, depending on specialty.

The bottom line is this: though a doctor is likely to be sued at some point in his career, he is very unlikely to have a verdict returned against him.

Here’s another look at these statistics from a study conducted by Medscape, in which they surveyed 1400 doctors who shared their experiences regarding malpractice suits brought against them. This slide seems almost tragic considering the fact that most of these cases ended before even being brought to court. The emotional toll a malpractice suit takes on a doctor appears to be quite high across the board, despite the likelihood of a verdict against a doctor being quite low.

Nearly 25% of doctors surveyed described the experience of being sued as “Horrible; one of the worst experiences of my life” while more than 60% described it as upsetting or “very bad; disruptive and humiliating.”

The bottom line is this: though a doctor is likely to be sued at some point in his career, he is very unlikely to have a verdict returned against him.

We expect our doctors to treat and care for us with compassion, knowledge, and concern for our physical and mental health, but it’s rare that we, as a society, treat our doctors with the same compassion. In fact, a recent study conducted at Imperial College London has revealed that doctors who go through a complaints process suffer from anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts at a far greater incidence than their peers who have not had complaints against them. They go on further to suggest that doctors who face suits or even witness their colleagues in a similar situation change the way they treat their patients, practicing more “defensive medicine” in an effort to shield themselves from a medical malpractice suit.

So at its heart, we have a very contradictory situation. We have a process which almost every doctor will go through at some point in his career, and even though 90% of these lawsuits will be settled or dismissed before any actionable verdict occurs, the process is emotionally debilitating for the sued doctor AND potentially results in poorer care for his patients going forward.

So what can we do about it?

In part 2 of this 3 part article, I take a look at how one doctor successfully navigated the tricky road laid before him by a malpractice claim, and how he managed to circumvent the emotional pitfalls of the litigation process that eventually concluded with his full exoneration and was able to return to his practice with renewed vigor. I will also look at another case that ended in tragedy.

In part 3, we will take a look at how a claims specialist from DDI will help you navigate the terrain of a malpractice lawsuit, and why it’s important to have a good malpractice insurance company that understands how emotionally difficult a complaint can be, while providing the best defense and security for our doctors.