Medical doctors might not be confined just to a consultation room or a surgery room, they might even venture out into uncharted territory -- the courtroom. In many court cases, an independent expert witness (witness of opinion) may be called in to help.

Most common situations are medical malpractice suits that often seek the help of medical expert witnesses. This individual is not the patient’s treating doctor, however he would possess the medical knowledge and experience in that particular medical field to assist the court in drawing conclusions to a case.

Although most people often start out as medical expert witnesses on a part-time basis, some may enjoy being in the courtroom that they eventually become established medical expert witness.

Purpose of a medical expert witness

The medical expert witness does not serve to persuade the court in siding with one of the parties. Instead, he is there to break down the barriers in understanding certain medical terms and practices, assisting the court on specialist or technical matters within his expertise. An example could be calling in an orthopedist for a case involving a car accident.

As such, his main purpose is to use language and terminology that is easily comprehensible by non-medical professionals, so that some of the evidence of the case can be interpreted accurately. It is therefore not his purpose to prove or disprove guilt but to only state facts from his report.

Expectations of a medical expert witness

The medical expert witness should be impartial and is there only to enlighten the court on medical related information. He should be able to do close examination of the provided facts of the case, including lay witness testimony and some medical records.

Furthermore, he is expected to prepare written statements and written reports, some visual aids to explain his theories, and to provide expert testimony before the court. He should ensure that the interpretations he provides are not misleading or ambiguous, taking care to explain any abbreviations and technical terminologies that are involved.

He should also be able to articulate the standard of care in medical negligence cases, and to give his expert opinion, strongly supporting it with sound arguments and evidence.

In Singapore, a medical expert witness needs to follow the ethical code and ethical guidelines provided by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC), and he should clearly state to the court the limits of his knowledge or competence.

Some highlights from the 2016 guidelines provided by SMC include being comptent, objective and impartial, disclosing confidential information on the patient that is only relevant to the discussion but nothing more which might pressurise him. The medical expert witness should also be familiar with the Rules of Supreme Court Order 40A Experts of Parties.

The traits of an effective medical expert witness

Since this job entails a vast amount of legal and professional liabilities, a medical doctor who wishes to be a medical expert witness should not be afraid of confrontation and be comfortable with it. Furthermore, being extremely fastidious is a necessary trait as he might get into legal trouble such as being liable for perjury if he failed to furnish all the facts in his report or during the oral testimony.

Many medical doctors, once having gained enough experience in the courtroom, may pursue this job when they near their retirement age in their medical profession. 
Training is essential to be effective, as without undergoing any training prior to taking up a role as a medical expert witness, the lack of experience and necessary skills would more than likely lead to incompetence in court. If he is not careful in the manner his report is presented, there might be a danger of unintentionally misleading the court.

Should a wrong conclusion then be made from the case, this would lead to a wasteful and costly aftermath, and create a strain on his medical reputation. For a doctor to have an “expert” status as a medical expert witness, he should have no issues in stating opinions with “reasonable medical certainty”.

Lastly, to step into this field, it is most advisable to do a lot of research and learn from current established medical expert witnesses, so as to be effective in the courtroom. MIMS

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