A conscience-stricken surgeon in South Dakota has publicly confirmed one of the great frustrations for patients pursuing medical malpractice claims after they have been harmed: He says doctors are too willing to lie in court to protect themselves and colleagues, as he did two decades ago in a case involving a partner in his practice.
Dr. Lars Aanning says he no longer could live with his lie. Because he is 77, retired, and cannot be subject to colleagues’ retribution, he decided to ‘fess up, and to help attorneys who represent injured patients. Aanning says he does not know whether his false testimony was decisive in his partner’s lawsuit. But he confesses that he knew his colleague’s patient had suffered because of the treatment this stroke victim received. He also had had doubts before about his partner’s work.
He tells a reporter for Pro Publica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning online investigative site, that he knew at the moment he uttered his untruths that his lying flew in the face of everything he thought he stood for. But he says, “I did it as a matter of course. And 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.’ ”
Aanning came clean in a column for his small town newspaper, and in a post on the Pro Publica Facebook page, where he said that he “had no problem with joining in, and accepting the defense mantra that no negligence or breach of ‘standard of care’ had occurred and that the surgeon had ‘done everything right.’ I wasn’t going to be a squealer—fat chance!”
He said peers and professional organizations subject doctors to relentless pressure to to stay in line, and never to criticize colleagues or their profession: “The professional societies like the AMA [American Medical Association] and the American College of Surgeons say you should be a patient advocate at all times. But that goes out the window because here you are, banding together with your peers. Because if you don’t, you’ll be like a man without a country.”
How powerful is this pressure to keep silent, and to support professional colleagues at all cost? Aanning notes that he cannot go to his onetime place of employment for care and “all my doctors are out of town.”
ProPublica offers distressing context for Aanning’s confession:
There’s no way to tell how often doctors to lie to protect their colleagues, but ProPublica has found that patients are frequently not told the truth when they are harmed. Studies also show that many physicians do not have a favorable view of informing patients about mistakes and that health care workers are afraid to speak up if things don’t seem right.
I’ve certainly encountered not only doctors with dubious testimony but also their collective, protective silence─and it ought to be infuriating to patient-consumers because it victimizes them, again. It’s important for patients who have been harmed, if they must sue doctors, to have seasoned counsel─their attorneys must, for example, be able within the rules to cut through supsect expert witnesses testimony with vigorous cross-examination. I’ve written a book for fellow attorneys on cross-examination — it’s called, naturally, “The Fearless Cross-Examiner” — and I have some resources for more effective cross-examination on my website here.
I’ve also written before about the importance of having expert legal help when dealing with the “hired gun” medical experts, including so-called independent medical examiners. These alleged experts repeatedly show up in lawsuits, especially as witnesses for insurers; these doctors give cursory scrutiny to patients but then heap on negative views about whether they have suffered harm and insinuate that patients are lying or exaggerating when that’s not so.
Although television medical dramas may portray doctors and hospitals as willing to concede and remedy medical error─for example through dramatic “mortality and morbidity conferences”─reality and the truth is different; the profession is all too reluctant and resistant.
Doctors, though research says they could benefit from doing so, don’t apologize; medicine doesn’t advance, including by getting safer, as it needs to, because its practitioners can’t own up to errors and fix them. Malpractice suits are one vital way to change this, and to help wronged patient-consumers.