[Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is written by The Physician Philosopher (TPP), an anesthesiologist who blogs to physicians about finances and wellness. This is the first part of a two-part series on how to create a physician side-hustle by serving as a medical expert witness. The second part tackles what to do after you've landed the job and can be found on TPP's website. We have no financial relationship.]
So, You Want to Be a Medical Expert Witness?
Serving as a medical expert witness for medical malpractice cases can be challenging, yet rewarding. In fact, there are organizations that exist solely to help you perform this job. As I ventured into this line of work, I experienced several unexpected circumstances that I would have wanted to know about prior to getting involved. For any of the medical professionals out there interested in getting involved in this kind of work, I want to give you a heads up on things that I feel are important to know prior to your involvement. This will be broken up into two posts.
In Part 1, we will discuss how to get started and what you need to know immediately thereafter. Part 2 will discuss some specific pitfalls to avoid as you navigate the medical expert witness work once you've accepted it. This can be a great side hustle, if you are open to the idea.
1) Get Your Foot in the Door
The best way, in my opinion, to get involved in medical expert witness work is by word of mouth. That way, you are having someone who has previously provided trusted work to an attorney's office provide a reference for you. Likewise, that person who sent you the work is more likely to send you an offer from a reputable office.
There are certainly other ways to get involved, such as through some of the professional organizations that will list your contact information as an expert witness. Utilizing this kind of method, you will get “cold calls” or “cold emails” looking to purchase your services. I turned away from this because it seemed a bit tacky; it's as if you are trying to do expert witness work as your main gig. Your main job should be, well, being a doctor (or nurse, PA, etc). This builds the most credibility both in and out of court, in my opinion. I'd recommend against building an expert witness website for the same reason.
2) Make Sure You Qualify
That said, word of mouth can be a slow process. Often times you are hanging around waiting for an opportunity. When my first opportunity arrived, I jumped at it and ran into some snags. I offered my services by sending my CV and my fee-schedule (the next point) to the attorney's office. (You should do this). They replied in kind that they were interested in my help. This particular case was an expedited review, which meant I had to provide a quick turn-around.
The problem was that, in the midst of reviewing the case, I subsequently realized that some states have very specific requirements to be an expert witness.
Here are some examples of specific requirements that qualify you as an expert witness (These are state specific): The person must practice in that state or in a contiguous state; an expert must have practiced for X amount of years (usually 1-3 years) prior to the incident involved in the case; the expert must practice in the same field as the defendant being named in the litigation; at least 50% of the time in the last two years has been dedicated to clinical work.
The point of all of this is to say the following. If you plan to get involved in medical expert witness work, then you need to make sure you know the laws for the state where the case took place. I often refer to this reference, if I have questions.
3) Fee Schedule
You wouldn't buy a car without knowing how much it cost. Most attorney's offices are not going to hire you without knowing what your fee-schedule is going to charge them. If you aren't sure what to charge, then you have two options.
The first is that you can ask the person you likely talked to in point number 1 above to get a “word of mouth” reference. If they are willing to name you as a reference, they may also be willing to share their fee-schedule. At the least, they should be willing to advise you on what you should charge. This is what I did.
If you aren't so fortunate, then you can also consult this information gathered by a SEAK study on various expert witness fee-schedule charges. This gives the high, low, mean, and median costs for various charges. For example, the retainer (see below) for most medical expert witnesses on average (mean) is $1500. The low is $75. The high is $15,000. You read that right. $15,000 upfront paid prior to work.
4) Keep Them on the Hook With a Retainer
Make sure you are the shark and not the bait. No one is going to fish for you.
There is a saying, “If you don't have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu.”
As I alluded to in point number 3 above, you should get paid up-front. Get yourself a seat at the table, and make the attorney's office pay for it. This is called a retainer.
My very first expert witness experience had me getting paid more than two months after I had completed the work and given the attorney's office my invoice. For this reason, I want to explain two of the more important reasons to have a retainer. Otherwise, you may be set up to experience the same frustrations.
First, you need to be “retained” before you provide any services to the attorney involved. This will help you to get paid in a timely manner. More importantly, this will make sure you get paid at all. Believe it or not, it is not uncommon for expert witnesses to provide help while expecting to get paid afterward… only to never be paid at all. Don't let that happen to you.
The second reason a retainer is important is because how long it takes for you to get paid is dependent on who is paying you. Is the attorney's office paying you directly? Or is it coming from the medical malpractice insurance company? In my first case, I was being paid by the insurance company. Guess what? It took a very long time. I should have demanded a retainer up front. Rookie move. After four emails, it showed up two and a half months after my invoice had been received.
5) It Is Profitable Work
As you can tell from the previously referenced SEAK study looking at fee-schedules, this work can be very profitable. If you charge a $1500 retainer and then $400 per hour thereafter, you can spend 10 hours doing work and earn $5500 (or $4000, if you “fill up the retainer” with hours worked).
That said, do the job well and recognize that there are strings attached. You may have to miss work to perform a deposition or testify in court. Some cases will keep you involved for two weeks. Others may involve your work for more than a year.
More importantly, I think this line of work makes you a better physician. It helps you realize where the pitfalls are and what is truly dangerous from a medical-legal perspective. Additionally, performing this work will make you better at documentation. You will learn what is worth documenting (things out of the norm) and what is not necessary to document. It'll also teach you to document contemporaneously as you work.
Hopefully, this post at least peaked your interest in medical malpractice work and you learned about some of the important aspects of getting started. Stay tuned for part 2, where I discuss some of the things you need to be aware of once you've received your retainer and you start doing the work.
Have you performed medical expert witness work? Are there other pointers you'd give to someone who is wanting to get started (but hasn't yet started)? Comment below!