San Francisco-based Heather Millar is a breast cancer survivor. A journalist for more than 25 years, she has covered health care and science for many national magazines and websites.
What happens if your doctor makes a medical mistake, and when is it appropriate to sue?
Recently, an acquaintance shared that her doctor had put the wrong size implants in during reconstruction. Her breasts looked so different from her original physique that it pained her to look in the mirror. And she struggled with this question: Should she sue her doctor for making that mistake?
This is a difficult question for any cancer patient. Certainly, there are some mistakes that are so serious that there should be some consequence to either the doctor or the hospital that made the error. Medical errors kill approximately 100,000, as many as 200,000 by some estimates, every year. A 2016 study found medical error to be third leading cause of death in the United States. Yikes.
It’s important to note that many mistakes are made by conscientious, competent doctors, not by the habitually negligent. Every year, there are articles about this such as these in “The New Yorker,” “The New York Times,” “Consumer Reports” and “WebMD.”
If you feel that the error is something that you just can’t ignore, or if you’re not sure about something your medical team wants to do, then follow these general steps:
• If you don’t understand something, don’t be ashamed to ask about it.
• If you’re unsure about a procedure or a treatment plan, don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion.
• If you disagree with your doctor, or you feel a need to confront your doctor, try to keep anger out of it. Anger seldom leads to any resolution. If you feel you can’t keep control of your emotions, ask a friend or family member to do it for you.
• Keep all your medical records and organize them.
• Take notes of all conversations and interactions you have with your doctor and medical team.
• Create a timeline of what happened from your point of view. Be as exact as you can, include as many details as you can.
• Interview several attorneys before you choose one, or decide to go forward with a lawsuit.
And before you decide to go forward, think long and hard about it. I come from a family of attorneys and my mother’s advice was always, “If you can avoid a lawsuit, do so.” She was a family law trial attorney. She knew how tough legal cases can be.
Cancer is stressful enough. Being involved in a court case is also stressful, expensive and time-consuming. You’ll be asked to tell your side of the story, over and over and over. There will be a defense team that will try to poke holes in your story. Unlike a legal TV show, a court proceeding can take years. All this can be really traumatizing.
Sometime, of course, it’s worth it. Other times, it’s not. Just be sure before you move to sue, and be sure that you are clear about the process. There are overviews here. Good luck.