The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Medical Expert Witness Gigs

empty courtroom awaits arrival of expert medical witness

If you’re looking for a physician side gig with great pay and some pizazz, say no more.

I’m talking about becoming a medical expert witness. It’s one of the most common physician side hustles out there, and for good reason. But there are some things you should consider before agreeing to take the witness stand.

Can any doctor be an expert witness?

Okay…bad news first. Being an expert witness is not really a gig for medical residents. That’s because the courts require medical witnesses to be experts, which pretty means being board certified in a particular specialty. There are some exceptions, though. Some docs can demonstrate adequate professional knowledge in a subject even without board certification. But I’m willing to bet almost all of those who do are gray-haired attendings.

So to review, what qualifies a person as a medical expert witness is generally board certification in a relevant specialty, plus an unrestricted license to practice medicine.

What this means in practice is that if you’re an orthopedic surgeon, you wouldn't be qualified to testify in a case about a birth injury unless you somehow obtained substantial knowledge in OB through your work.

What do medical expert witnesses do?

It's really pretty simple. Medical witnesses look at the facts of a given case and give their medical opinion about those facts. For example, a hospitalist might look at a patient’s chart to help determine if the standard of care was met.

There are many types of litigation that medical expert witnesses can be involved in, but personal injury and medical malpractice are probably the most common. Med-mal cases can be awkward, because you’re basically being asked to judge the actions of your peers. In my opinion, this is one of the major drawbacks to this type of work.

The other thing to consider is that being an expert witness can be stressful, especially when it comes to testifying. On the other hand, though, most doctors are already used to fielding tough questions, thanks to patients, families, and that over-enthusiastic chief you had during residency.

Here are some of the specific things you might do as a medical expert witness.

  • Review a case before it’s a case. Litigation can be super expensive, so plaintiffs and their attorneys want to know they have a fair shot at winning before bringing a case to court. Therefore, medical expert witnesses are often hired to weigh in on the merits of a potential case to help the parties decide whether it’s worth pursuing. Just by taking a look at a case, you could be sparing people the unnecessary hassle and expense of going to court during an already stressful time.
  • Chart review, but make it legal. You might be hired to pour through hundreds of medical records—either to find medical error or something that could prove a doctor wasn't at fault. Although tedious, it's a task that can actually help you get better at charting, which is a nice bonus.
  • Statements and visual aids. Medical witnesses generally have to write up their findings. They may also be tasked with making models and other types of visual aids that can be used at court to make a particular point. This can be a great way to break free of the monotony of your daily note writing while really thinking about how to communicate medicine effectively.
  • Testify at trial. This is what we all think of when we say medical expert witness. You should know up front that testifying involves a barrage of questions from both sides. Some of the questions can be pretty unpleasant, like if the other side were to attack your credentials to try to undermine your testimony. On the other hand, though, your testimony might be all that's needed to convince a jury to make the right call.

Do you get paid to be an expert witness?

Unlike lay witnesses—like someone who saw a car accident firsthand—expert witnesses almost always get paid for the work that goes into preparing their testimony. Many physicians charge about $500 per hour for this type of work. So if you spend 10 hours on a case, you’ve basically just earned yourself a 10-day vacation for the whole fam. At least from the financial side of things, this is a physician side gig that’s tough to beat.

How to become a medical expert witness

flipMD makes it easy to land expert witness gigs. Just sign up to become a consultant and then filter open jobs to find a witness gig. One tip is to make sure that you've got a great resume on deck when applying. Attorneys tend to ask expert witnesses lots questions about their qualifications to impress the jury, and they want to make sure you'll have a long list to rattle off. Good luck!!

Gregory Hanson, MD, MPH

Gregory Hanson, MD, MPH

Greg is a PGY-4 interventional radiology resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia. He graduated from UCLA with his BS in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences before moving across the country to New York City. While in New York, Greg obtained his Master of Public Health degree in epidemiology with an advanced certificate in applied biostatistics. He then went on to do his medical school training at Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, New Hampshire. In June 2018, he started his post-graduate training with a surgical intern year at Jefferson before continuing there for his integrated interventional radiology residency. During his first year of diagnostic radiology, he began offering his services to various clients by any means possible and was able to make additional side income to help support his family through residency training. This is what sparked the idea for flipMD.

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