Sunday, March 31, 2013

Badmouthing Your Doctor

A headline on the front page of this morning's Boston Globe jumped out at me - "Doctors fire back at patient critiques: Lawsuits target harsh web posts." It tells the painful story of the relationship between Gary Cotour and Dr. Sagun Tuli, neurosurgeon for his late wife Lyn.

Dr. Tuli operated on Lyn Votour to remove cancerous vertebrae. During the second surgery Ms. Votour experienced a stroke. After a stay at a rehabilitation hospital she returned home, bedridden and dependent on a feeding tube. Two years later, depressed and in pain, Lyn Votour asked Gary to remove her feeding tube. He did so, and she died.

Mr. Votour's relationship with Dr. Tuli apparently went well during her acute hospitalization, but after discharge it fell apart. After her death Mr. Votour asked to meet with Dr. Tuli. Here's what he later said about the situation:
I was not doing well with grief. I wanted to go back and talk to Dr. Tuli about some questions that were bothering me. I really wanted to ask her why don’t doctors follow up after discharge. I wanted to understand why doctors just wash their hands after discharge.
The meeting Mr. Votour wanted never happened. Dr. Tuli claims that a hospital lawyer told her not to meet with Mr. Votour. The hospital denies this and claims that Dr. Tuli "indicated that she was not comfortable meeting with Mr. Votour."

Mr. Votour posted on his blog that doctors at the rehabilitation facility had encouraged him to file a malpractice suit against Dr. Tuli and that he lost his wife "not to cancer but to indifference and egotism."

In response, Dr. Tuli is suing Mr. Votour for defamation, asking for $100,000 in damages.

Whether it was the hospital lawyer's advice or Dr. Tuli's discomfort that led to not meeting with Mr. Votour after his wife's death, that meeting should have occurred. In addition to all of the work that has been done on the benefitial effects of apology, I draw on a personal experience here. Some decades ago I had brief contact with a college age student suffering from severe depression. The student believed that the depression stemmed from stressors, and that returning to school would alleviate the symptoms, as had occurred in the past. After discussion, I agreed with this prediction, but advised the student (I'm deliberately leaving out gender and other identifiers) to seek immediate help if the symptoms recurred. The symptoms did recur. The student sought help as I had advised, but committed suicide in the course of the care process.

The student's family asked to meet with me. We met for an hour or two. They pressed me to explain why I supported return to college rather than immediate hospitalization. After I did so they asked if I felt I had made a mistake. I said that I had thought carefully about the advice I'd given, but that in retrospect I wished I had followed a different course. I expressed my great sorrow about the student's death. It was one of the most painful meetings of my entire career.

Some years later I was contacted by a malpractice lawyer representing the family. My anxiety soared. The lawyer asked me for information, but told me that the family was bringing suit against the college, and had specifically requested that I not be brought into the case.

Given the terrible outcome it would have been entirely understandable for me to have been sued. I believe the heart to heart meeting we had had after the student's suicide assuaged potential bitterness against me. The family may well have felt that I made an erroneous judgment, but they did not feel as Mr. Votour did that the student's death was caused by "indifference and egotism."

The Boston Globe article quotes David Ardia, codirector of the Center for Media Law and Policy at the University of North Carolina, about the impact of the Internet on physician concern about our reputations: 
the Internet has realigned the power structure that existed between doctors and patients, giving patients far more influence than they have ever had. The Web is just chock-full of people commenting on their experiences. Doctors have reacted with a great deal of hostility toward this.
The article led me to look myself up on the rate-your-physician sites. The single patient response on healthgrades gave me the lowest possible grades on every category. I ended my clinical practice five years ago, but if I were still in practice I'd be concerned that 100% of the reviews I'd received gave me a F grade.

Dr. Tuli's suit against Mr. Votour reflects a classical form of "good vs good" ethical conflict. Freedom of speech is a fundamental good, enshrined in the First Amendment. But our public reputations are precious to us, and even a non-verbal critique like the one an anonymous former patient gave me on healthgrades can undermine a career. As unseemly as it is for a physician to sue a former patient, Dr. Tuli will not be the last physician to follow that unhappy route.

(Two examples of enterprises that offer to protect physician reputations can be seen here and here. And, thanks to an anonymous reader, here is a link to the original post that is no longer on the web.)


Jim Caputo said...

I think it was Jerry Seinfeld who made the observation that in every medical school class, some doctor finished last. And tomorrow, someone has an appointment with him or her.

Pre-internet, short of an acquaintance that may have used him/her, we had no way of knowing who are the good doctors and who are the less than good doctors. Doctors had better step up their game; we're no longer in the dark.

Jim Sabin said...

Hi Jim -

Thanks for the great Seinfeld quote. He makes an important point - quality varies from physician to physician.

I agree that internet information is basically a good thing, but there's a difference between objective or semi-objective assessments and surveys of patient reactions and an extended rant about about a physician - who may be quite competent but loathed by an angry patient - as a murderer. In addition to injuring the physician - not by real "information" but by a rant, it will be disturbing folks who are seeing that physician.

The best "defense" against rants is probably a respected system that provides meaningful quality information. If I make a product that is well reviewed in Consumer Reports, I'm relatively protected from a rant.