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Should I sue my doctor?

  • Story Highlights
  • Suing after you've had a medical complication isn't always a real option
  • If you're not seeking high damages, it could be hard to get a lawyer to take your case
  • Another option: Ask hospital's risk management officer to consider compensation
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By Elizabeth Cohen
CNN
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Empowered Patient, a regular feature from CNN Medical News correspondent Elizabeth Cohen, helps put you in the driver's seat when it comes to health care.

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- When Christine had a hysterectomy in September, her doctor told her it would take about a week to recover from the laparoscopic procedure.

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Medical complications are not always the result of negligence. Nearly every procedure involves some risk.

Four months -- and three additional surgeries later -- she's still recovering, and out thousands of dollars in medical bills and lost wages.

Christine has become caught in the cracks of America's health care system, where there are no easy answers for patients who suffer a complication.

Many assume a lawsuit would be the obvious path.

Christine says she's spent about $5,000 out of pocket to fix the complication, plus she lost thousands of dollars when she was too sick to work.

"The first question everyone I know asks is, 'Are you suing?'" says Christine. "My mother, my sister-law-law, my husband. My husband is on a rampage -- he's on the lawsuit bandwagon."

Christine, who's a physician herself and didn't want her last name used, was reluctant to sue. She didn't want a black mark against her doctor. "He's such a nice guy. He delivered my children," she says.

Her friends and family weren't moved. "They said, 'I don't know what's wrong with you,'" she says.

So after weeks of pressure, Christine visited a malpractice attorney recommended by a friend. But he wouldn't take the case. A different lawyer contact by CNN said he wouldn't have either, partly because he wouldn't make much money off it.

"What are her losses -- maybe $50,000? I can't afford to take a case that recovers $50,000," says Wayne Grant, an Atlanta malpractice attorney. "My expenses would likely be more than the recovery. She's out of luck."

Plus, he said, it would be a very difficult case to win, because it would be tough to show the injury was the result of the doctor's negligence.

Exactly one week after the hysterectomy, Christine awoke in horrible pain and immediately went to her doctor's office. When she passed out in his waiting room, an ambulance took her to a hospital.

A CT scan revealed urine was accumulating in her abdomen. Christine says her doctor explained what he thought went wrong: When he was using a cauterizing tool, he must have nicked the ureter, the duct that carries urine from the kidneys to the bladder. "He really owned up to it," Christine says.

The next day, her doctor implanted a nephrostomy tube, so Christine's urine could accumulate in a bag outside her body. A week later, she had a third procedure to insert an internal stent to replace the tube and the bag. When that stent caused her pain, doctors removed it in a fourth surgery. Today, Christine is scheduled to have a fifth procedure to fix her ureter, which has become almost completely blocked by scar tissue.

Grant says the complication that caused all these problems -- the nicking of a ureter -- would most likely be considered a regular complication of the surgery, and not negligence. This means that even though Christine has clearly suffered, she wouldn't have a case. "Just because you have a bad outcome doesn't mean you can sue," he says.

If Christine lived in New Zealand or Sweden, she would be able to recover her money, according to Lucian Leape, adjunct professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health. He says that in those countries, the national health system pays damages even if the doctor didn't do anything wrong.

But Christine lives in the United States.

Several legal experts consulted by CNN said Christine should just eat her costs and move on. But others said there was hope.

Christine could sit down with her doctor and the hospital's risk management officer, suggested Dr. Michael Woods, a surgeon and the CEO of Civility Mutual, a group that tries to reduce misunderstandings between doctors and patients.

"You can slice this any way you want, but something obviously did go wrong. Who caused it is irrelevant," Woods says. "The hospital could say, 'We as an organization are going to step up to the plate and give you the care you need to get through this.'" E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Elizabeth Cohen is a correspondent with CNN Medical News.

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