Medical Expert Witnesses

Medical expert witnesses are, it goes without saying, impeccably independent. It is one of those unexplained statistical quirks that, notwithstanding that independence, their opinions tend consistently to reflect the case of the party that is paying their fees. However, that is no more suspicious than a coin coming up heads 420,000 times in a row – it can happen; probabilities work that way.

This week a colleague and I found ourselves sat in the depressing surroundings of a business centre in a Premier Inn at Heathrow, waiting to deliver a lecture . We shared the room with a doctor and his friends. The doctor had booked a room so as to enable him to see a large number of whiplash victims with a view to providing them with letters giving his prognosis for their recovery for use in claims.

I got the impression from his grumpy demeanour that his practice was not thrilling him as once it did. He had a problem with his patients. He was explaining the problem and his eyebrow-raising solution at considerable volume to his companions.

The essence of the problem was that if, as often happened, he examined a patient with whiplash and determined that the prognosis was a full recovery within 6 to 7 months, his patients would get shirty, start talking about their “rights” and insist on waiting the period out in the hope that their neck would still hurt and their compensation might be bigger. This was inconvenient for him as it meant having to perform a second examination and, as he explained in a tone of gathering outrage, he wouldn’t be able to bill the file until he had done so.

His solution? Careful experimentation had revealed that if he untruthfully estimated prognosis as 12 months or a little more, patients were not prepared to wait and he found it easier to persuade them to take whatever money was being offered to them. This, in turn, allowed him to “clear the file from [his] desk and bill for the work” promptly.

It was all I could do not to go over, shake his hand an introduce myself (untruthfully) as a member of the General Medical Council’s disciplinary panel.


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