Two doctors recall their experience of receiving a clinical negligence claim and explain how the MDU's support made all the difference during testing times.

Over the course of their professional careers, the two MDU members in this article - one a GP, the other a consultant surgeon - have helped many thousands of patients. But like every doctor, they were still at risk of receiving a medical negligence claim. When the day came, both of them initially turned to the MDU for legal representation but found that the support they received went far beyond their expectations.

Without the MDU on their side and by their side throughout the lengthy legal process, they are convinced the impact on their professional and personal lives would have been far greater.

A bolt from the blue

GP:'The patient had been seen by our practice several times over the years with a benign breast condition. However, she was later diagnosed with breast cancer and made a claim against me and my colleagues.

'I was about to retire and it was my first claim, so one could say I had been lucky before. It made me think of the advice of my first senior partner, who said I should always ensure I paid my defence fees because a complaint or claim - when it came - would be from an unpredictable quarter.'

Consultant surgeon: 'The patient was someone I had treated many times before, and at the time I probably didn't realise it would lead to a claim. It was actually about 10 months before I received a letter from the patient's solicitors advising me that he was unhappy with the treatment I had provided, and I only received a formal letter of claim three years later.

'I had been an orthopaedic consultant for almost 30 years and had been involved in medico-legal work since the early 1990s. But while I was aware of the litigation process, inevitably it feels totally different when it's you facing these allegations, rather than being an instructed expert.'

In safe hands

GP: 'I contacted the MDU pretty much straight away and I got the feeling they were taking the matter seriously from the word go. They asked for relevant information and took charge so I don't recall feeling anxious at any point over the next two years.'

Consultant surgeon: 'It was comforting to know that the MDU were representing me and it took some of the pressure off. I was very appreciative of how my views were sought on expert witness statements and when a decision had to be made as to whether the claim should be settled or fought.'

Support and reassurance

Consultant surgeon: 'The preparation that the MDU provided was all-encompassing, not just for me but also for my practice manager and outpatient nurse who had to give evidence. The MDU was also very supportive of my wife and I know she found it helpful to be invited to meetings ahead of the trial where she could speak to my defence team and understand how the case was being conducted.

'A pivotal moment came a few weeks ahead of the court date when the claimants tried to settle and my case came before the MDU's committee of eminent doctors. My solicitor took the trouble to phone that evening to reassure me that they had agreed I had done nothing to reproach myself for and I had their full support to fight the case in court.'

The claim also turned me into a doctor that I didn't want to be. I found myself practising more defensively and tended to think the worst in any given situation.

GP: 'The MDU met my expectations in just about every respect. In fact, I would say they exceeded those expectations. I would ascribe quite a lot of this to my MDU solicitor who was very courteous and proactive: if she needed any information she would email me explaining what she needed and why and she kept me informed throughout the process.

'While she warned me it would take time to resolve, she also made me feel there was a powerful team behind her who knew what they were doing and I felt everything was running along well-oiled lines. There was always a sense of optimism that a solution would be found, whatever turn the case should take.'

How a claim takes its toll

GP: 'Everybody thinks of doctors as being very hard working and they really are. Doctors work long hours and have a lot of emotional stress so to have an extra burden thrust upon you is difficult in a variety of ways. There is no question in my mind that the MDU mitigated that enormously, and that allowed me to continue my work as a doctor in much the same way. And equally importantly, it allowed me to continue my family life without excessive stress.'

Consultant surgeon: 'The case dragged on for a very long time [eight years] and the effect was quite profound. During this time I lost my father, saw two daughters get married and had three grandchildren - all major life events. Two of my grandchildren was born a few weeks before the court case and I found it cast a shadow over what should have been a very happy event.

'The claim also turned me into a doctor that I didn't want to be. I found myself practising more defensively and tended to think the worst in any given situation. One of my daughters is also a doctor and I think the experience scarred her too - if this could happen to her father then it could happen to any doctor.'

Outcome and aftermath

GP: 'Since the case was settled by the MDU, I have been retired from general practice for a couple of years and I'm loving it. I joke now that I need to go back to work for a rest.'

Consultant surgeon: 'The judge dismissed the claim but for months after the case finished I continued to have anxiety dreams that she had changed her mind. I started to look forward again in the New Year and had renewed enthusiasm for work and now I'm enjoying my career without this hanging over me. I'm also writing a book about my career in sports medicine.'

It's important to try to keep things in perspective: I kept saying to myself that I try and help hundreds of patients each year and have done for 35 years - a single claim doesn't suddenly make me a bad doctor.

Medico-legal experience and expertise

GP: 'It's very difficult to see what I might have done if I hadn't had the MDU supporting me when faced with a complex claim of this type. My feeling is that I would probably have had to retire in part or in full simply in order to handle the detail, to develop the network of legal support, and to handle the emotional stress that would undoubtedly have come without any certain knowledge of the outcome. And as these cases can go on for a number of years, that could have proved very wearing.

'The experience of having the MDU support me over this claim made things immeasurably easier. I can't say I ever felt I was on my own - I put my faith in the experts and I always felt I was in safe hands. It was worth every penny of the membership fees I had paid over the years.'

Consultant surgeon: 'Without the support of a specialist organisation like the MDU, the only recourse a doctor has in these circumstances is to go to a general legal firm. But given the complexity of the case, its duration, the size of the medical records to be examined and the intricacies of the expert witness reports, I believe anyone who didn't have an expertise in medical work would have sought to settle the case and almost certainly in favour of the claimant. My MDU claims handler and solicitor were amazing and always on hand for me. They were also able to ground me and help me put things in perspective.'

Expert advice

Consultant surgeon: 'What did I learn from this experience? First, without my records I would have been in trouble. Second, have full confidence in the professionals around you. Third, it's important to try to keep things in perspective: I kept saying to myself that I try and help hundreds of patients each year and have done for 35 years - a single claim doesn't suddenly make me a bad doctor.

'Finally, I'd encourage anybody facing a claim to look for outlets away from work to try and take your mind off things. For me that was cycling - I tried to go out and find the biggest hills I could!'

GP: 'It's important that we doctors don't bury our heads in the sand if we receive a complaint or claim; that we are honest with our legal advisers; and that we do our bit to help them by responding promptly when they ask for information. And once we have done that we can be pretty confident that they will handle the matter for us, allowing us to continue our professional lives.'

Interview by Susan Field

This page was correct at publication on 25/05/2018. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.