Medical Malpractice How to Cope When your Physician Spouse is Sued, Part III by The Alliance of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama and The Alabama Physician Health Program

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Medical Malpractice How to Cope When your Physician Spouse is Sued, Part III by The Alliance of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama and The Alabama Physician Health Program

The Role of the Physician’s Spouse

• Be a Counselor and Personal Cheerleader:

Because a physician’s statements concerning a case are potentially admissible against him in a trial, he does not have the outlet most other people have in discussing things that happen in his job. He cannot discuss specifics with his physician partners, peers, or even family (other than his spouse) because these individuals can be called to testify against the physician and forced to reveal what the physician may have said to them. In the state of Alabama, communications between a husband and wife are confidential. [In Missouri, normal marital discourse is subject to the privilege and may be waived by the defendant if he wishes the spouse to testify. Exceptions to the rule may occur in cases of marital separation, or statements made with a purely business purpose.] That means that a spouse cannot be forced to disclose such information. He can talk to you!

It cannot be stressed enough that it will be helpful to your spouse for you to listen. If your spouse will take time to teach you about the suit and the medical position he used, you will both benefit. You can also help by asking questions that can aid your spouse in preparing how to speak to a jury. The more he practices, the more relaxed and less confrontational the exchange becomes. Practicing helps explain the sequence of events. The jury wants to understand, but unfortunately, the jury is not a physician’s peer group in terms of medical knowledge. If you do not understand something, a jury won’t either

Not all physicians want to talk about the suit to their spouse. If you are fearful and overreact to discussions about the suit, your husband may not want to discuss the case with you. Some people involved in a situation like this, admittedly, become severely depressed or anxious. It is imperative that you seek help if this is overwhelming to you. There is nothing shameful in this. Stigmas have been attached not only to medical malpractice suits, but also to seeking the professional help that is a part of medicine. If depression and psychological illness were not facts of life, we would not need physicians.

Take some time to enjoy yourselves - a weekend away. If you have children, they may see the increased tension at home. Try to keep their schedule as normal as possible.

• Be an Asset in Court:

Just like your physician spouse, your demeanor in court is very important. You need to appear calm. You must strive to not appear arrogant or angry

Be Seen, Not Heard:

Watch what you say, even in the restrooms. Jurors or potential jurors may be in there. Many things spoken may be misinterpreted or even cause for a mistrial.

You may want to bring a support person to sit with you, such as a parent, sibling or friend. Don’t talk or whisper while court is in session. If you need to say something, write it down.

Body Language:

Facial expressions are hard to control. However, maintaining your composure is important at all times during the trial.

Hearing someone “speak badly about” your spouse is very difficult. Remember, your spouse will get to explain his reasoning and logic. His experts will get to testify. There really isn’t any way to prepare yourself or your spouse for testimony presented by the other side. This is one time that eye contact with your spouse and a smile will help carry him through the trial. Just don’t go overboard. Be subtle.

If you have to leave during the trial, do so an unobtrusively as possible. You don’t want to call attention to yourself.

• Be as Asset Outside the Courtroom

Make time to have lunch with your spouse. He needs your support. He may want to go over something with you that helps clarify things in his own mind. During the trial itself, you and your spouse will be very tired at the end of the day. Rather than have to go home and prepare dinner, if possible, go out to eat. If this is not possible, have easy meals prepared. Perhaps a family member of support group can help out.

Taking away all your fears is impossible. However, some fear is a good and healthy phenomenon, as in the saying: “Fight or Flight.” During this time, you also want to keep your sense of humor. Laughter is not called ‘the best medicine’ for nothing. The case itself might provide some humor, if you look hard enough. It is okay to laugh outside the courtroom; it can ease the tension.

“Children need to be...encouraged to discuss their feelings about the suit. If these fears and worries are brought out into the light, they can usually be dispelled.” It is best that children not learn about the malpractice suit from the media or hearsay. Anticipating their emotional reactions and validating them as normal responses can mitigate their pain and alleviate isolation (Eisenberg, 1987). Believe it or not, all young children tend to blame themselves for every problem in the home, real or imagined.

COPING WITH CHILDREN’S FEAR

This can be a very difficult time for children as well as for the parents. The following are some tips for helping them cope as well.

✦ Maintain family traditions like holidays and birthdays, even if you don’t feel like celebrating. Try not to become too preoccupied with your own concerns and anxieties.

✦ It is important to take care of yourself, both emotionally and physically, so that you can be there for your children. Be aware of your own stress level, and if you are feeling overwhelmed, seek support from family, friends, spiritual counselors and if necessary, a health professional.

✦ Remember that children are very perceptive of adults' behavior and emotional responses. Children see and perceive more than you may think and are very sensitive to your fears and anxieties. As previously mentioned children tend to blame themselves for every problem in the home, real or imagined. While it’s okay to admit your concerns in front of the children, be sure to emphasize your ability to cope and that it’s not their fault. Be mindful of what you say and do, and if possible, minimize children’s exposure to conversation truly meant for adults.

✦ It’s not always possible to accurately gauge when children are feeling scared or worried. Be alert to clues such as your child’s expressions, play activities or angry outbursts, which may signal a child’s unspoken need to talk. Watch for dramatic behavior changes. While it is normal for a child to express feelings of anger, fear or sadness after a crisis, if these feelings persist or get worse over time, there’s no shame in contacting a mental health professional.

✦ Monitor your child’s exposure to media coverage. If children see information about the case on television, watch it with them and talk to them afterwards to clarify any misunderstandings.

✦ Reassure your children. Remind them that they are precious to you and that you are taking every precaution to keep them safe.

We are grateful for the permission by the authors to reprint this article. MPHP has a listing of resources for more information on malpractice and its impact on physicians. If you would like this information, please contact Nancy Morton @ 800-958-7124 X23.

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