Almost two decades ago, Dr. Lars Aanning sat on the witness stand in a medical malpractice trial and faced a dilemma.
The South Dakota surgeon had been called to vouch for the expertise of one of his partners whose patient had suffered a stroke and permanent disability after an operation. The problem was that Aanning had, in his own mind, questioned his colleague's skill. His partner's patients had suffered injuries related to his procedures. But Aanning understood why his partner's attorney had called him as a witness: Doctors don't squeal on doctors.
The attorney asked the key question: Did Aanning know of any time his partner's work had been substandard?
"No, never," Aanning said.
Now, Aanning, in a stunning admission for a medical professional, has a blunter answer: "I lied."
While it's impossible to know to what extent Aanning's testimony influenced the outcome, the jury sided in favor of his colleague — and, ever since, Aanning said, he has felt haunted by his decision.
Now, 77 and retired, he decided to write about his choice and why he made it in a recent column for his local newspaper, The Yankton County Observer. He also posted the article in the ProPublica Patient Safety Facebook group. Aanning, who is a member, called it "A Surgeon's Belated Confession."
"From that very moment I knew I had lied — lied under oath — and violated all my pledges of professionalism that came with the Doctor of Medicine degree and membership in the [American Medical Association]," Aanning wrote.
Aanning, who has become an outspoken patient advocate, now assists the medical malpractice attorney who represented the patient in the case in which he lied for his partner.
There's no way to tell how often doctors lie to protect their colleagues, but ProPublica has found that patients frequently aren't told the truth when they are harmed. Studies also show that many physicians do not have a favorable view of informing patients about mistakes and that health care workers are afraid to speak up if things don't seem right. Many doctors and nurses have told ProPublica that they fear retaliation if they speak out about patient safety problems.
ProPublica spoke to Aanning about his unusual column and why he decided to confess all these years later. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why did you tell the lie?
I did it as a matter of course. And I did it because there was a cultural attitude I was immersed in: You viewed all attorneys as a threat, and anything that you did was OK to thwart their efforts to sue your colleagues. I just accepted that as normal. It wasn't like, "I'm going to lie." It was, "I'm going to support my colleague."
Did you feel pressure from your peers to never criticize a colleague?
Pressure is the prevailing attitude of the medical profession. The professional societies like the AMA and the American College of Surgeons say you should be a patient advocate at all times. But that goes out the window because here you are, banding together with your peers. Because if you don't, you'll be like a man without a country.
Why are you telling the truth now?
I'm retired now. The big benefit is they can't hurt me, but I can't go to the clinic for any help. All my doctors are out of town. I came to America from Norway in '47 and grew up in New York. I've always been a rabble-rouser. This testifying falsely at this trial was not like me, so it stands out. It's not how I do stuff.
I also told the truth about my lie because I have been helping some of these plaintiffs' lawyers with their cases. It seems that the courtroom is not the arena for adjudication of medical right or wrong. I shared my story to give an explicit example of why you can't always rely on physician testimony in court. I think that's the big reason. There's got to be a different way to help people who have been medically harmed. Looking to the legal system is like mixing oil and water.
Do you feel like it's your fault the patient lost the case?
I haven't touched on that question. It would make it painful for me. I would be moved to tears if that whole case revolved around just my testimony. I was on the stand so briefly. But cumulatively between what I said and the other testimony — it was never a level playing field for the plaintiff. People don't recognize it. How the judges don't recognize it and the system doesn't recognize it is beyond me. It's something I'm coming to grips with.
Have you thought about talking to the patient's family?
The attorney said something about meeting the patient's widow in his office, or something like that. I worry about whether my testimony weighed on the final verdict or not. It's something that you just have to face up to. It's too late to deflect it.
Do you feel any better or worse now that you've gone public with your moral failure?
I'm not altruistic. I'm not a crusader. I got into writing this column accidentally, so I just kind of find myself in this position. I get a great satisfaction out of defining what I see and writing about it. I hope nobody's going to come back at me and accuse me of bad conduct. Although that's what it was. I felt bad about it.
ProPublica is interested in hearing from patients who have been harmed while undergoing medical care, through its Patient Harm Questionnaire and Patient Safety Facebook Group. You can follow Marshall Allen on Twitter: @marshall_allen.