While in junior high, Anna Selby resolved to practice law after watching her father, a physician, agonize over a medical-malpractice lawsuit.
“I was surprised at how it affected him,” she said. To her, the alleged injury seemed minor. “He took it so hard.”
Today, as associate general counsel of Washington University in St. Louis, she oversees all med-mal suits against physicians associated with the School of Medicine — and many of them are just as distraught as her father was. They often don’t want to discuss it.
But she tells them: You are not the first person this has happened to, and just because you’re getting sued does not mean you’re a bad doctor. She walks them through the legal process and explains how she’ll defend them.
“You see the relief come over them,” she said. “Their body language, the way they speak — it gives me a purpose to see that. And I say that no matter what the outcome of the trial, you still have to be at peace with yourself as a provider, because there are still more people to help and treat.”
Selby graduated from Saint Louis University School of Law in 2003. She landed at Armstrong Teasdale and learned how to litigate med-mal cases from Tim Gearin and Dave Ott, she said, working on trials “as much and as often as they’d let me.”
She came to Wash U in 2015, where she coordinates with the university’s own risk-management team as well as outside counsel to tackle med-mal suits.
There, challenges abound. For example, Barnes-Jewish Hospital, where many university physicians practice, has implemented a new record-keeping software called Epic that has affected the discovery process. In addition, Selby said, ever since a jury in 2016 in St. Louis awarded $17.6 million to plaintiffs accusing Saint Louis University and one of its doctors of overprescribing opioids, more and more health care providers are becoming the targets of punitive-damages verdicts.
She said a crucial part of her job is being sensitive to such changes in the landscape and giving in-house presentations on topics ranging from how to post on social media to the importance of keeping good documentation.
“I want everyone to be as prepared as possible,” she said. “I do not want to be caught in a situation that I did not see coming.”
Many cases end up being — often to her delight — a crash-course in a specialized branch of medicine.
“Medicine is an imperfect science,” she said. “Everybody is learning more and more every day. But there’s never going to be a day when there are no more lawsuits.”
Which means she’ll have plenty of more doctors to “counsel,” in every sense of that word. She typically meets them fairly late in the process, be it right before mediation, arbitration or trial.
“At that point, the case hasn’t gone away, so they’re even more worried about it,” she said. “But when I feel like I can tell I’ve given them a sense of peace about the process, and they can go out there and keep practicing, that’s when I feel like I’ve made a difference.”