Dr. M, 60, sat in his car in the parking lot of the medical center at which he worked. He had just gotten off the phone with a friend, a fellow physician with whom he’d gone to medical school, and he was reeling from her bad news. His friend reported that she’d been sued by the family of a young patient who had passed away from a cancer that the friend had failed to diagnose. She was devastated by both the fact that she hadn’t been aggressive enough in finding the cancer, and that she was now in the midst of a lawsuit.

Dr. M could sympathize. He had become increasingly fearful of lawsuits. It seemed that whenever he opened the paper, there was some story of a patient suing a clinician. Some of the lawsuits that he read about seemed frivolous – but he was also aware that clinicians do make mistakes and he was determined to try to avoid them. He knew that as a physician, and particularly one who performs surgery, that his likelihood of getting sued at some point in his life was good. He was glad that he’d gotten away this long, but his friend’s story had raised his anxiety level.

Nevertheless, he was expected at work, so he took several deep breaths, put his cell phone away, and walked into the medical center.

His day was uneventful until he was asked to look at a patient who had come into the medical center’s outpatient clinic. The patient, Mr. L, 58, had a swollen lymph node in his neck.

“Not sure how this happened, Doc,” said the patient, a worker in a local lumber mill. “I just woke up like this yesterday and it didn’t get any better so I thought I should have it looked at. I’m kind of feeling like Frankenstein.”

The physician examined the patient as Mr. L continued to talk.