I had a conversation with a reader who has been trying to get into some volunteering. In fact, I’ve had several such conversations with doctors who are worried about the risk of volunteering. Let’s break this down because I think I’m the right person to talk about volunteering. I’ve done a lot of volunteering and was given a rather sobering impression of it by my lawyer, of all people.
In episode #112 of the podcast on the topic of volunteering I discuss the value of volunteering. I understand that some want to volunteer for religious reasons or in order to advertise their private office. As for God or Allah or Jesus, if the holy one appeared in your sleep and told you to volunteer as a physician then go out there and flink that stethoscope. For the rest of you here is a realistic view on volunteering as a physician.
Can You Get Sued?
Let’s go straight for the juggy, can you get sued volunteering as a physician? Yes, you can. Oh but Dr. Mo what about Sovereign Immunity? What about the group malpractice for the free clinic? According to the sovereign immunity doctrine you can work for a government sponsored free clinic or other such healthcare service without getting sued in a malpractice claim.
I’m not a lawyer but I can google. When it comes to the malpractice lawsuit then you might have a slight protection as a volunteer physician but this isn’t guaranteed, whatsoever. And it’s not always the outcome of the lawsuit that a doctor worries about. Just being mentioned in a lawsuit is a terrible experience and has career consequences. Even if the government steps in and assumes your role as a physician in case of a Sovereign Immunity you still have do mention this lawsuit to future employers and medical boards and malpractice insurers.
You’re a doctor, you’re a whale. People see you as having deep pockets. Lawyers know that you’re likely to cooperate and they also know that you’ll be cocky enough to not get a lawyer when you should. Many doctors try to represent themselves early on in lawsuits because we’re bad mofo’s like that.
A non-medical lawsuit can be a nurse suing you for sexual harassment. It could be an errors and omissions suit from a claim you made not directly related to your medical license or a patient. It could also be a lawsuit because you served as a medical director or board of director for a free clinic as a volunteer.
Volunteering as a Physician
A cop does a lot for their community. They work among criminals and do their part to keep the rest of us safe. At least in theory; I know that it doesn’t always work out that way. But imagine if a cop wanted to go volunteer and chase criminals. Why volunteer in something you’re already working in as a profession?
The work you do as a doctor is already damn good work. You sacrificed a lot to become a doctor and being a doctor isn’t exactly simple. You’re wielding questions from friends, family, staff, and colleagues. Why do you feel that you should also volunteer as a doctor on top of what you do as a physician?
My buddy today showed me this gross rash on his neck. Then he went on to describe his diarrhea to me which preceded the rash. This is while I was sipping on my black coffee … in my speckled mug. Dunno about you, I feel like I’ve done my volunteer work for March.
I’m not saying whether you should or shouldn’t volunteer; just trying to frame the decision. Your job as a physician is among the most risky things you can do legally. To add more risk to your professional career should be a very careful decision. Even though the chance is extremely low of getting sued as a volunteer in clinical medicine, once it happens it’s a nightmare.
I used to volunteer at a community free clinic as an undergrad. We would check in the free clinic patients and I’d create their paper charts and process any referrals and make their appointments. The work was very gratifying because patients were for the most part very appreciative. But there were still the occasional pain in the ass patients who were frustrated that they had to wait too long or didn’t get the tests or meds they wanted.
As a physician you probably wouldn’t want to volunteer as a front office check-in clerk. But could you perhaps work with children at a free daycare? Could you work at the animal shelter? Maybe a homeless shelter or a homeless food kitchen? There are all sorts of senior citizen volunteer opportunities such as going to their homes and checking in on them.
You can even help poor people with tax preparation if you want to do something outside of medicine. You can give talks to you local community center on health. You can even chauffeur old people around to their appointments. There are community gardens where you can lend a green thumb.
Risk of Clinical Volunteer Work
I realize that the work I do as a physician has a lot of serious consequences. That’s why clinical medicine is a risky sort of business. If you are in your wealth accumulation phase, if you have a lot of student loan debt, and if you have others relying on your income as a physician then volunteering as a clinician seems risky to me.
A time will come in your career when you can take on such risks without worrying too much. Once you have paid off your debt and reached a certain level of financial freedom it’s okay to expose yourself to a little more risk.
I always assumed that by volunteering I would be viewed as a team player. A physician who is doing his part and giving back to the medical community. Volunteering as a physician can be a good thing if it’s done strategically – that’s what my lawyer told me. In fact, when you’re working part-time or as a per diem doctor, volunteering in clinical medicine the rest of the time, you might be viewed as having a lax attitude towards medicine.
Digest that for a minute.
This is coming from my lawyer who does nothing more than represent doctors before the medical board. He doesn’t view volunteering as a good thing for the medical board. In fact, I was volunteering at 2 different clinics when I was pegged and neither of those bullet points on my resume helped my cause.
Volunteering might help if your character is brought into question. But in medicine it’s never your volunteer organization that will bail you out. The medical board doesn’t want some office admin who is your scheduler being your character witness. You’d be expected to have 3 different physician appear before the medical board on your behalf to clear your name.