We get multiple calls every month from prospective clients inquiring about their medical malpractice case. In the overwhelming majority of these instances, we have to tell the caller that there’s nothing we can do for them. The sad reality is that even though medical errors are a leading cause of death in our country (only cancer and heart disease kill more Americans every year), our system of justice as it pertains to medical malpractice is largely broken.
Doctors carry a lot of clout in our society, and rightfully so. That fact alone makes it difficult for juries to find against doctors in most cases. Furthermore, many states have enacted tort reform measures that make it difficult to even bring such a case to trial. In Georgia, for instance, a victim of medical malpractice has to find another doctor to sign an affidavit supporting the allegations of misconduct before a lawsuit can even be filed. As you might imagine, finding a doctor willing to “rat” on another doctor, especially if they practice in the same community, can be nearly impossible. And even if there is a legitimate claim for malpractice, doctors may feel pressure to lie or withhold harmful information in these kinds of cases in order to protect one of their own.
These factors make the confession of former surgeon Dr. Lars Aanning to NPR all the more shocking. He recently published an article in his local paper confessing to lying under oath about a former partner’s medical negligence in order to protect his colleague (and his own practice, more than likely). When asked if he knew his fellow doctor’s work was substandard in the case at issue, Aanning admits he blatantly lied in front of the jury, which ultimately found his partner was not liable for the alleged injuries.
Knowing that he contributed to such a grave miscarriage of justice has haunted him ever since, and he has now become an unabashed patient advocate who helps victims in medical malpractice cases. His admission should serve as a warning to us all that doctors, no matter how strong our tendency to place them on a pedestal may be, are nonetheless human and subject to the same fallible motivations as the rest of us.
Though we have no way of knowing how often doctors may fabricate evidence or lie to protect their fellow professionals, recent studies from ProPublica Patient Safety Group have confirmed many of the points highlighted by Dr. Aanning’s confession: (1) patients aren’t always told the truth by their doctors when they’ve been harmed; (2) many physicians do not want to inform patients about mistakes that have been made; and (3) healthcare professionals are concerned about retaliation if they speak out against known errors.
We can only hope that confessions from doctors like Dr. Aanning bring awareness to the fact that the playing field in these cases has not been level for some time now, despite the fact that medical errors present a significant risk of harm to patients everywhere.