The Undiscovered Specialty

(Dr. Stephen Thornton is board certified in emergency medicine and medical toxicology and is one of Vident Partners’ leading experts in those fields.  For more information about him, see 

Summer is upon us, and with it over 120,000 residents and fellows will graduate and begin their medical careers.  They have trained in 30+ specialties and countless subspecialties.  Yet none of them has any formal training in a medical specialty that is likely to impact all of their careers – forensic medicine. 

Over 85,000 medical malpractice lawsuits are filed every year, and in the vast majority of them at least one forensic medicine physician (or medical expert, to use the legal system’s terminology) will be required – often more than one.  Over 50% of physicians will be named in a medical malpractice case at some point in their career, yet the practice of forensic medicine will be alien to almost all of them.

I was one of those physicians.  In the course of six full years of postgraduate training – four years of emergency medicine residency training and a two-year medical toxicology fellowship – I received a few didactics on “how to not be sued,” but no formal instruction on what it means to be a forensic physician and the important role that medical experts play in our legal system.  It was only after my first encounter with a medical malpractice case that I began to understand how little I knew about forensic medicine. 

I found the field fascinating but knew almost nothing about what it involved.  Fortunately, early in my career I developed a relationship with Vident Partners.  Their experience and support enabled me to mature as a forensic physician without making the “learning on the job” mistakes often seen when physicians try to navigate this specialty on their own.  At its heart, forensic medicine is a pursuit of knowledge, and it should attract any physician who has the curiosity to ask, “What happened and why?”  It entails fully understanding the facts of a case and using your education, training and experience to recreate the events, as if you had been there yourself.  Ultimately, the forensic physician’s task is to express an opinion as to whether a prudent physician in the same situation would have done the same thing. 

My ongoing relationship with Vident Partners frees me to focus on what I find rewarding about the field, while spending less time on billing and paperwork.  Many of my colleagues ask me about being an expert witness.  My answer to them is the same: It is a field that is necessary and rewarding and will make you a better doctor.  But just as you would never perform a procedure without training for it, entering the practice of forensic medicine should be done with help of professionals like Vident Partners who can guide you along the path.


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