Emergency medicine focuses on illnesses or injuries that require immediate medical attention. Rather than focusing on particular body systems, age groups, or types of diseases, emergency physicians may be called to work on any type of patient at any time intervention is required.
The work an emergency medicine expert contributes to a legal case will depend on the specific details of the case, including the injuries or illness suffered and the circumstances under which emergency care was sought or provided. Here are several key considerations for working with emergency medicine expert witnesses.
When To Use an Emergency Medicine Expert
Emergency medicine physicians work in moments of crisis when making the right medical decision can be a matter of life and death. Since these physicians work on the front lines of emergency care, they typically focus on resuscitating, stabilizing, and investigating the causes of acute injury or illness.
An emergency medicine expert may be necessary if the issues in the case center on the emergency intervention a plaintiff or decedent received. For instance, if a claim of medical negligence focuses on how emergency physicians handled the plaintiff when he or she appeared in the emergency room with a specific set of symptoms, an emergency medicine expert may be ideal.
As experts, emergency medicine physicians may also be asked to discuss the standard of care for emergency treatment in medical malpractice cases or to testify in a wide range of personal injury cases. For instance, an emergency medicine expert may testify as to the proper procedures for triage, for responding to abnormal vital sign readings, for stabilizing a patient, or for ordering tests, imaging, or other procedures in order to seek a diagnosis for a patient’s particular constellation of symptoms.
Since emergency care often occurs when a patient is unconscious or otherwise unable to provide informed consent, emergency medicine experts may also be able to speak to the consent requirements in an emergency setting.
When an Emergency Medicine Expert Isn’t Necessary
If the case focuses on more general questions of medical practice, on prognosis, or on care and treatment of a specific medical condition, another expert may offer a better fit. For example, if a plaintiff was admitted via the emergency room but then suffered harm during surgery, an expert on the type of surgery performed may be better able to testify as to the applicable standard of care than an emergency physician.
Choosing a Qualified Emergency Medicine Expert
Choosing a qualified emergency medicine expert is less cut and dried than choosing a medical expert in certain other fields. While a neurosurgeon’s qualifications, for example, come down to the number of surgeries the neurosurgeon has performed, emergency medicine experts do not have similar bright-line statistics.
When choosing a qualified emergency physician to serve as an expert witness, look for one with experience in the type of emergent situation that appears in your case. Some emergency medicine practitioners have also focused their work on specific areas, such as the ethics of consent in emergency situations. If your case involves such issues, an expert who has published thoughtful contributions to the field may prove more helpful than one who has not.
Challenges in Recruiting Emergency Medicine Experts
The challenges in recruiting emergency medicine experts are twofold. First, finding the right emergency physician expert witness can be a challenge.Approximately 40,000 physicians currently work as emergency physicians nationwide. However, not all of these physicians are board certified in emergency medicine. A shortage of emergency physicians exists nationwide, and it is projected to increase as older doctors retire, fewer young doctors enter the field, and the volume of patients continues to grow.
Second, emergency physicians are held to high standards in their service as expert witnesses, not only by the judicial system, but by their own professional bodies. The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) views expert testimony by emergency physicians as “constitut[ing] the practice of medicine.”
Therefore, ACEP requires emergency medicine practitioners who testify as expert witnesses to meet a number of standards. These include:
- Being a licensed MD or DO within the United States
- Being certified in emergency medicine
- Practicing emergency medicine for at least three years prior to the date of the events that give rise to the case,
- Abiding by a number of guidelines when giving testimony, such as possessing current experience and giving testimony that relies on “a thorough review of available and appropriate medical records and contemporaneous literature.” Several more guidelines are included as well.
Attorneys who understand the guidelines ACEP provides for the testimony of emergency medicine physicians can more easily communicate with these experts. They can tailor the work required to fit within the guidelines and even discuss them before the judge or jury as needed in order to bolster an expert’s credibility or provide context for the expert’s stated opinions.
Establishing Rapport With Your Emergency Medicine Expert
Building a good relationship with an emergency physician is essential. Emergency physicians typically have more predictable hours than many other specialists, but the shortage of these professionals in certain areas often means that they are busy and may be difficult to contact.
Use your emergency physician’s time wisely. Gather the necessary medical records and other information, and prepare your questions or concerns before reaching out. Efficiency and preparedness save time and strengthen the relationship between you and your expert witness.