Lots of physicians have side hustles. One type of side work unique suited to physicians is becoming an expert witness.
Imagine being paid to weigh in with a professional opinion in court, and even save another physician some heartburn and money by offering a second opinion of sorts that can get them out of a legal jam.
In today’s post, by Gretchen Green, M.D., MMS, we take a look at why expert witnesses are often unsung heroes and how becoming an expert witness can be both lucrative and satisfying as a physician.
If you’d like to learn more about becoming an expert witness, Dr. Green has opened her well-received Expert Witness Startup School for enrollment now through Monday 1/30/2023. Once again, Dr. Green will donate her profits from the course to two educational non-profits that she holds dear.
If you are a medical doctor and member of our Physicians on FIRE Facebook community, you can watch and listen in on a conversation between Dr. Green and me here.
As a radiologist in private practice for over 15 years, building an expert witness practice has re-energized my career and helped me put my medical and teaching skills to work in a new way. I’ve become an entrepreneur and built several businesses, including an online course called Expert Witness Startup School that teaches clinicians to launch and build their own expert witness practices.
Physicians often ask me if it’s wrong to testify against other physicians, and they are often surprised at the unexpected benefits of being an expert. In this post, I’ll tell you how you can do good and give back to the profession, even while doing work some consider “bad.”
Taking an Unbiased, Neutral Approach
Physicians looking to apply their clinical skills in a new way can find expert witness work to be a rewarding side gig, both financially and professionally.
As a radiology expert witness retained in over 150 cases, I have reviewed cases for both plaintiff and defense attorneys and I apply my knowledge, training, and experience objectively regardless of which side retains me.
So when people ask me how I can testify against other doctors, my answer is that I’m not testifying against physicians.
My focus is on the evidence and how decisions physicians made were reasonable based on what someone with similar skills and training would do under similar circumstances. This is one way to think about the “standard of care” without getting into legalese.
Why Working With the Plaintiff Can Be Frowned Upon
Physicians considering expert witness work occasionally encounter restrictions limiting their ability to serve as experts.
Hospital or practice policy may dictate that physicians may only be retained by defense counsel. Contracts may stipulate that a percentage of earnings from expert witness work is paid back to the employer. Physicians may be prohibited outright from serving as experts.
These policies and limitations do nothing to stop medical malpractice cases. Keeping good physicians from serving as experts only hurts your chances of finding a high-quality expert to review your potential malpractice case, but it does not prevent claims from being filed.
How the Defendant Can Benefit from Your Role With the Plaintiff
Preventing physicians from being retained by plaintiff attorneys will make it more difficult for attorneys to find reputable experts to do quality reviews of cases. Some cases may not proceed against a physician if an expert retained by a plaintiff’s attorney finds there was no deviation from the standard of care.
But many physicians will never know their expert colleague’s review actually saved them from a malpractice case because there’s no way to know it didn’t (almost) happen.
An Expert Can Be a Valuable Asset to a Hospital and Medical Practice
Experts who routinely review cases from both plaintiff and defense attorneys have a balanced perspective that helps them reduce risk in clinical practice and serve as a crucial resource for their practice or hospital employer.
Expert work requires knowledge of the local standard of care and a working knowledge of specialty society guidelines, medical literature, and other resources that are invaluable in daily clinical practice.
Experts can serve vital roles on hospital or practice committees, sharing knowledge and helping inform policy in a practical way that directly improves patient care. We are the clinicians you call to curbside consult a difficult case and you’d rather learn from others’ mistakes rather than risk making one on your own.
We help answer the tough questions from lawyers and translate doctor-speak to plain English when lawyers and juries need to understand our work from a layman’s perspective. Even when I find a doctor did nothing wrong and the plaintiff’s attorney concludes there is no case to pursue, my involvement provides the opportunity to help the patient understand their case better and find resolution even though they may not get their day in court.
There are Truly Bad Doctors Out There
Statistics often quote the risk of being sued as around 50%. This leads to a misunderstanding that physicians are basically facing a daily coin-flip risk of being sued; today it either happens or it doesn’t.
That does not quite reflect the reality of malpractice risk. Up to 1 in 2 physicians (more toward 1 in 3 female physicians) may be sued over the course of a 50-year career. The odds of being sued in any one year are much lower. And who knows how many of us will complete a 50-year career given the dramatic change in most medical employment models these days?
A significant percentage of malpractice claims are made against the same physicians; some physicians will have multiple suits against them over the course of their careers. This may be because they practice in high liability specialties (i.e. neurosurgery, obstetrics), or they may be actually practicing bad medicine.
Loose or nonexistent supervision of opioid clinics, performing cosmetic-type procedures not within your specialty, or not staying current with new developments in your field may be examples of higher liability behavior.
Expert Work is not a Hobby; You are Paid for Your Time, Not Your Opinions
Since this work is done on your own free time, my hope is that physicians and other clinicians will pro-actively negotiate your employment contracts with a qualified attorney or other professional to help avoid having to pay back your employer a portion of their expert witness earnings.
With so many physicians having received pay cuts during the pandemic, it hardly seems fair to tax physicians on work done on their own time, usually at their own risk, and which serves such a vital role in the legal and medical communities. Physicians working as employees rather than practice owners likely face a career with reduced earning potential.
It appears unlikely that the declining physician reimbursement trend will reverse substantially, therefore it is imperative that physicians are not restricted from making money doing quality work in their time away from their daily (or nightly) clinical workplace.
Making More Money Outside Medicine May Be the Key to Keeping You In Medicine
Physicians who can achieve financial freedom by diversifying income from para-professional activities like expert witness work are much less likely to burn out and leave medicine.
By bringing our expertise to the legal field as expert witnesses, everyone benefits, including patients. I teach a comprehensive how-to course to help physicians and other clinicians launch and build expert witness practices, and I am dedicated to helping my students become the best experts they can be, for everyone’s benefit.
I encourage you to share this with practice and hospital leadership to advocate for the option to pursue expert witness work in whatever capacity helps you put your skills to work best for all.
For more information on our training that teaches physicians how to launch and build a successful expert witness business, please visit Expert Witness Startup School. This online course with a 7-day money-back guarantee could lead you on a quick path to earning $500 to $900 an hour, leveraging your medical knowledge and experience. Click here for further information. Enrollment ends Monday, 1/30/2023.