Secondary Victims of Medical Malpractice

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Recently, Voices for Safer Care, a forum for healthcare professionals, patients and others who are committed to ending preventable harm, improving patients’ outcomes and experiences, and reducing waste in health care, posted an article entitled Supporting “Second Victims” with Emotional First Aid. Voices for Safer Care is a part of the Johns Hopkins Medicine Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality.

The article discusses the impact on health care providers who inadvertently injure patients while rendering care. It discusses instances where caregivers have been traumatized when they commit medical errors leading to serious injury or death and highlights their need for emotional support from peers to assist the caregiver in getting past the stress of the event, regaining self-confidence and returning to the practice of medicine with a positive, forward-looking attitude.

It may be true that caregivers who injure patients through medical negligence may themselves feel the impact of their deeds. It may also be true that this may give give rise to the need for emotional support from their colleagues. However, characterizing them as “second victims” is inappropriate and trivializes the devastating result of their negligent conduct.

The primary victims of medical negligence are easily identifiable. They are the patients who, through a medical mistake, have been left with a devastating, life-altering injury. Quite frequently, victims of medical negligence suffer constant pain, permanent physical impairment causing disability and the need for ongoing medical, hospital and custodial care. They are often unable to carry out routine activities of daily living. As well, they frequently are unable to return to employment, thus creating a financial vacuum in the lives of their family.

A medical injury is like a stone thrown into a pond, creating a ripple effect which spreads outward. The true “secondary victims” are the family members closest to the injured patients who are forced to bear the burden of  physical and emotional support. Spouses of victims become caregivers, transforming the marital partnership into one where the uninjured spouse must assume all of the duties formerly carried out by the victim, as well as provide daily assistance with even the most rudimentary tasks we all take for granted: toileting, bathing, dressing, meal preparation, medication, transportation to and from medical appointments, etc. The weight of such an unplanned, unexpected, and undeserved burden can be both physically and emotionally overwhelming.

The same impact is true for parents of an injured child who are left to see their offspring needlessly suffer while powerless to end it, all the while encouraging the child (and themselves) to be brave and stay positive. And let’s not forget the adult children of an injured parent who are forced to interact with the parent much like the parent did with them during infancy and childhood. This role reversal exposes both the injured parent and the children to the indignity and embarrassment of requiring and/or providing care, sometimes highly personal in nature.

Characterizing the negligent caregiver as a “secondary victim” unfairly minimizes the fact that their medical mistake caused the injury and created the victim.

Unlike the healthcare provider whose negligence caused the harm, these people are truly secondary victims of medical injury. Along with the primary victim, they are most deserving of support in the form of respite care, financial assistance and emotional support.

For over 30 years, the lawyers at Schochor Federico and Staton have made it our mission to provide every measure of compensation allowable under the law so that primary and secondary victims receive the support they need and deserve.