What makes people want to sue their doctors? Over the years I’ve spoken with thousands of people who have been unhappy about their health care. Most people are understanding and forgiving of errors and oversights by their doctors. But when their concerns are dealt with poorly or not at all, patients become incensed and may want to start a lawsuit or file a complaint with the College of Physicians and Surgeons. When people suffer catastrophic, life-altering injuries, they are even more inclined to want to begin a lawsuit. In reality, most bad outcomes from health care are not due to negligence and will not warrant a lawsuit, but if you are concerned, you should speak with a lawyer.
Here are the most common concerns I hear:
Nobody told me
The most common complaint from callers who have a bad outcome is they do not feel they were given enough information about the risks of their procedure ahead of time. This is a “lack of informed consent” complaint. When considering informed consent, the important word is ‘informed’. Flashing a document in front of a confused, scared and suffering patient and providing 30-second clinical diatribe about the planned treatment simply does not do it. When providing an explanation about medical procedures, your physician is supposed to let you know about the kind of procedure being considered, how serious it is, and what the risks are. They should also let you know if there are any reasonable alternatives that should be considered, and they should answer any questions you have about the procedure. This applies to all medical interventions from complex surgical procedures to writing a simple prescription.
A claim that you did not give informed consent for a procedure is generally difficult to win in court. That’s because the courts consider that you went to the doctor because you had a health concern and you would likely have gone ahead with the procedure even if you had been told about the risks. So do your best to become an informed patient. Don’t make the doctor guess – tell the doctor what you want to know and what matters to you, and ask lots of questions.
They got it wrong
After informed consent concerns, medical misdiagnoses leading to incorrect therapeutic recommendations is another common complaint. Once you describe your symptoms your physician will ask you questions, examine you and order relevant tests. At that point there may be several possible diagnoses. Your physician will use his or her best clinical judgment to recommend a course of action; this sometimes proves to be incorrect. Regrettably, if an incorrect diagnosis is passed along to other practitioners, rather than investigating alternatives, the wrong course of action may be pursued. By the time the problem is recognized the patient may have become seriously ill. This ‘target fixation’ is at the root of many patient complaints.
I needed a specialist
Another concern patients have is that often the medical care provided depends upon where the patient lives. A patient in Vancouver has relatively quick access to hospitals and highly trained specialists, but in rural areas you do not always have easy access to this expertise. Referrals to specialists can involve lengthy journeys and inordinate delays. In well-meaning efforts to overcome these obstacles a family physician may get in over their head; a situation that may lead to further injury and additional interventions that otherwise might not have been required. This is especially true in situations where the patient has suffered a rare or unusual condition that even in the most advanced clinical settings may require intense investigation by several highly trained specialists.
They didn’t take me seriously
Complaints sometimes involve mistakes such as an unintended nick in an adjacent organ during surgery or the development of a post-operative infection, or a patient may simply have a bad outcome. Nothing is guaranteed in medicine and no two people will respond in the same way to the same medical treatment. Many bad outcomes are recognized risks of procedures and may result even when there is no negligence. Here, it is often not the mistake itself that is the issue, but the poor or nonexistent response afterwards that trouble patients the most.
The system failed me
Lastly, the medical system itself is often cited as the reason for patient dissatisfaction. Perhaps the most common complaint deals with inordinate delays in receiving treatment. Also, in many instances, a patient’s perception of the relative success of a medical procedure is coloured by the way they were treated by their caregivers. Whether this is a lack of sensitivity and compassion by the caregivers in a hospital or a rude receptionist in a medical clinic, patients sometimes generalize their dissatisfaction to cover their entire medical experience.
There are, of course, many individual reasons for a person’s dissatisfaction with medical care but, most of it comes down to simple communication. Physicians must talk to their patients and take reasonable steps to ensure they understand what is recommended, why that is the best course of action, and the risks and benefits of proceeding. As a patient, you need to ask questions and not be intimidated by a physician. Make sure you understand what is planned and what you can expect from the recommended treatment. If your doctor is unwilling or unable to answer your questions or refuses to do so, find another doctor. As difficult as that may be, if you don’t understand the risks and benefits of the proposed medical treatment, you may find yourself wondering if you made the right decision.
You can do your part by giving your doctor information, by asking questions and by reporting to your doctor how you feel after a procedure. In reality, most bad outcomes from health care are not due to negligence and will not warrant a lawsuit, but if you are concerned, you should speak with a lawyer.