A Lawyer’s Guide to Working with Academic Physicians and Surgeons

The use of academic experts offers unique benefits critical in medical litigation. By virtue of their daily role in educating the next generation of healthcare providers, university physicians and surgeons often have an exceptional ability to simplify and explain complex medical processes. When combined with stellar CVs, faculty status at major medical centers, and clinical workplaces that literally define the standard of care, the compelling attributes of university experts are instantly recognized by jurors and can tip the scale in high-stakes litigation. These tangible benefits make academic experts a mission-critical asset for most attorneys. However, working with them differs in several pertinent ways:

1. Titles. When physicians and surgeons join the faculty of a medical school, they become a professor. The titles Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor all signify increasing degrees of tenure. Each of the titles can be further modified by descriptors including Clinical, Research, Adjunct, Adjunct Clinical, and Emeritus. While one may refer to any of these professionals as “Professor,” greeting them as “Doctor” is far more common.

2. Time with patients. With the exception of Research and Emeritus designations, all professors must maintain busy practices devoted to direct patient care, teaching, and research, though some Professors Emeritus still practice clinically. This means that they are not only teaching the standard of care — they are practicing it on a regular basis in the clinic and operating room. The mistaken notion that professors of medicine and surgery “don’t see patients” is easily dispelled by asking them to provide a detailed breakdown of their weekly routine and percentage of time spent caring for patients.

3. Business arrangements. University specialists are the antithesis of “professional experts” who attribute a substantial percentage of their income — and devote tremendous amounts of time — to testifying. This means that while university physicians are true experts in the practice of medicine, they may lack expertise when handling the business details of working as an expert. By setting clear expectations for retainers, work preauthorization, and timely invoicing, nearly all financial disagreements can be preemptively avoided.

4. Range of specialization. In private practice, physicians and surgeons often perform work that may fall outside of the traditional scope of practice. For example, a Family Medicine doctor may administer cosmetic injectables, or a General Surgeon may perform complex vascular surgery. In the university setting, nearly all practitioners stay within classic boundaries because other specialists (e.g., Aesthetic Dermatologists and Vascular Surgeons) are readily available to see the patient. This means that when working with university experts, one should not anticipate or expect a significant degree of off-topic specialization. Even when working with non-academic experts, more than one expert may be required when a case focuses on a non-traditional, cross-specialty procedure or activity.

5. Instructions. While all physicians are busy, university physicians have additional institutional demands that occupy their time. When they sign on to a case, they are absolutely agreeing to commit the necessary time and resources, but their buy-in is predicated on a full understanding of the deadlines and deliverables pertinent to the engagement. This requires careful instructions, ideally included in the engagement letter, regarding exact expectations on both fronts. Start by explaining what you expect the expert to do, the time by which it should be completed, and the way in which the expert’s opinion should be conveyed. For example, a typical letter may say, “Please reply to confirm that you received the attached records and then begin your independent review. I’d like to discuss your findings within the next two weeks, and you may call my office to arrange a convenient time. Please do not prepare a written report at this time.” If there is a specific deadline, be sure to explain and document the deadline and expectations with absolute specificity.

As with all professional interactions, clear communication and mutual respect are the keys to winning with professors of medicine and surgery.

If you are considering or involved in any type of medical litigation, please contact Elite Medical Experts to hand-select nationally recognized academic experts for your case.

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