Surviving Malpractice Litigation: The Weaknesses in Our Strengths

Today we’ll explore a tool for surviving your experience with medical malpractice litigation and unexpected outcomes – the notion that our weaknesses reveal our strengths.

I had the pleasure recently of participating as an invited speaker in the Physician Resiliency Summit hosted by the Foundation for the Pennsylvania Medical Society. Among the excellent people I met there was Dr. Tait Shanafelt, the Chief Wellness Officer at Stanford University and a practicing hematologist-oncologist. In his previous role at the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Shanafelt conducted foundational research regarding burnout and depression among physicians. Who better than an oncologist to explore how physicians might remain well even in the midst of the challenging work that we do, right?

In the course of his talk at the Physician Resiliency Summit, Dr. Shanafelt alluded to a concept I have explored here before, namely the notion that some of physicians' weaknesses or vulnerabilities stem directly from our strengths. In the context of malpractice litigation or recovery from an adverse patient outcome, this connection plays out in a variety of ways.

One clear example would be that we suffer when our patients experience an adverse outcome precisely because we possess one of the cardinal strengths of great physicians, compassion. Without our compassion, we're not worth much as physicians, but that strength brings with it real vulnerability to suffering when our patients suffer.. And in the context of malpractice litigation, the fact that a lengthy, protracted argument is being held over whether you harmed someone strikes you right at the core, in no small part because you are compassionate.

Another classic strength of the excellent physician is diligence or conscientiousness. Once again, if someone else suggests that we have been less than diligent, it hurts. And if we ourselves are the one who makes that suggestion? We get really diligent about beating ourselves up over it.

If you find yourself stuck in a particular struggle, be it fear, anxiety, self-doubt, or self-recrimination, it may be helpful to you to take a moment and try to find the strength on the other side of the coin if you can. Perhaps start by exploring your particular strengths, or what you believed them to be at one time. I think that if you explore the strengths that brought you into medicine, you may find that there's a direct connection to the struggle. In my experience, self-respect and self-forgiveness can take root in our hearts and minds when we acknowledge the strengths hiding in the background. Take time to honor yourself as person equipped with the strengths essential to the person equipped to practice this complex profession. And then breathe in acceptance of the fact that none of us gets the strengths without the vulnerabilities they encompass.

Let me know whether you find this concept as helpful to you as it was and is to me. Comment below or shoot me a message here and let me know what you think about how this applies in your life.

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