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How One Doctor Exposed a Culture of Lying in the Medical Community

Bringing suit for compensation against a doctor who, through his or her own negligence, caused you or a loved one injury is a fundamental right guaranteed to all citizens. Unfortunately, this right has been under attack for years.

As a result, the road to recovery for patients in medical negligence cases is far more difficult and expensive than it once was. Well-documented barriers, such as the high costs of trying a medical malpractice case (injured victims must hire a medical expert before filing suit) and reduced attorney fees on recovery have effectively barred lesser but legitimate injury claims from ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. In addition, hiring a medical expert to testify is not always easy because physicians who testify against other physicians risk being shunned in their profession going forward.

Sadly, we now write about a new barrier to injured victims.

A shocking new column by Dr. Lars Aaning confirms what many inside the medical negligence industry have known for years: in addition to doctors who will not testify against other doctors, there are also doctors who will lie to protect fellow physicians.

“I lied,” Dr. Aaning said, reflecting back on his time as an expert witness. Dr. Aaning saw numerous patients come in to his partner’s office for surgery and then leave with new injuries as a result of those medical procedures. Yet, when one of those unlucky patients – who had suffered a stroke and a permanent disability as a result of the surgery – finally mustered the will and resources to bring suit against the partner, Dr. Aaning denied under oath ever knowing that “his partner’s work had been substandard.”

Dr. Aaning’s confession is maddening. The responsible doctor permanently and seriously injured a patient who entrusted his care to this doctor and when the injured patient attempted to hold this doctor responsible for his negligence, Dr. Aaning lied to shield the doctor from responsibility.

As jarring as this story is, it is not an anomaly. Three separate studies reveal that Dr. Aaning’s behavior is more representative of a problematic culture than a problematic doctor. Research prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed that, on the aggregate, medical staff are afraid to speak up when something does not seem right. ProPublica, an independent, non-profit investigative journal, found that, even though there is no way to know how often doctors lie, “patients are frequently not told the truth when they are harmed.” And finally, the Journal on Quality and Public Safety, which looked at two studies of over 4,000 medical professionals, revealed that physicians do not have a favorable view of informing patients about serious medical errors; in fact, only 49% strongly agreed serious errors should be disclosed.

To understand these disturbing statistics, one need not look any further than Dr. Aaning’s very own explanation: “I did it because there was a cultural attitude I was immersed in: You viewed all attorneys as a threat and anything that you did was OK to thwart their efforts to sue your colleagues. I just accepted that as normal. It wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to lie.’ It was, ‘I’m going to support my colleague.’”

Allen, Marshall, “Doctor Confesses: I Lied To Protect Colleague In Malpractice Suit,” National Public Radio, 23 September 2016.

Pierce, Olga and Allen, Marshall, “A Trail of Medical Errors Ends in Grief, But No Answers,” National Public Radio, 18 December 2015.

Loren, David M.D. and team, “Disclosure, Apology, and the Sharp End,” Journal on Quality and Patient Safety, Volume 36, March 2010.

“Hospital Survey on Patient Safety Culture,” Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, March 2016.

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