An interview with dietician Sue Summers
There’s a misconception that only doctors and consultants can work as medical expert witnesses In fact, healthcare professionals working in all kinds of roles are needed in medico-legal cases – including nurses, midwives and physios.
In this blog, we chat with paediatric dietician Sue Summers about how she got involved in expert witness work and her experiences so far.
Could you tell us a little about your career and current role?
I qualified as a dietician 18 years ago. Since then, I’ve worked widely in the NHS, primarily across the West Midlands, and also overseas – including some time in Gibraltar.
For the past eight years, I have specialised as a paediatric dietitian, working in the community with children with neurodisabilities and special needs. My role is predominantly focused on enteral feeding and supporting those with feeding difficulties, working closely with families and other professionals.
What prompted you to look into expert witness work?
I’d been interested in expert witness work for some time. I wanted to test the water and find out whether this was something I could do.
I found out about Inspire MediLaw’s online courses, which seemed perfect for me as I could gain some insights without having to commit to formal classroom sessions. This gave me the chance to learn flexibility and absorb the information at my own pace.
What are your impressions of the online expert witness courses?
Initially, I was a little worried that expert witness work might be more suited to a consultant or a GP. But the online training alleviated those concerns and helped me see that this was something I could do.
The law is completely different from medicine – the terminology is completely different. Inspire MediLaw’s online learning provided a good grounding in the main principles of expert witness work and what’s expected in the role.
This all proved invaluable when I took on my first case.
When did you complete your face-to-face training?
I completed Inspire MediLaw’s two-day face-to-face training at a later stage – although most medical professionals complete either the online courses or the face-to-face training.
Obviously, the benefit of face-to-face training was being able to ask about specific clinical scenarios and put questions to the experts. It was also good to hear clinicians from different specialties share their insights. For example, one of the surgeons on the course was talking about patient consent. It was interesting to hear how he approached shared decision-making conversations with patients.
How have you found the expert witness work?
I took on my first case soon after I completed the online learning. I found it really interesting and quite challenging work.
Expert witness cases involve a lot of detective work – piecing together all the different details to form your opinion. You have to work out what’s relevant and what’s not. It’s important to stay focused and keep the legal question you’re being asked to address at the forefront of your mind.
The report-writing element was definitely a challenge. I was able to go back over the online report-writing course and clarify certain points, which was very useful.
Expert witness work has helped me to become a better communicator and refine my approach to shared decision-making with patients. This has had a positive impact on the feedback we’ve received from patients – which is very rewarding for me as a medical professional and also beneficial for my NHS department as a whole.
Would you like to take on further expert witness cases?
Yes. I’d definitely like to take on more expert witness cases in the future. Next time, I’ll be more familiar with the process and also understand more about the time commitment involved.
I was surprised by some elements – like the volume of handwritten notes. So I became very familiar with interpreting different handwriting!
Which skills and attributes are the most important in expert witness work?
It’s important to look at things fairly and be honest if a question or issue falls outside your remit. It’s also vital to understand how to find different information – such as clinical guidelines and other relevant documents.
You need to be open-minded and impartial at all times. People have asked me whether I feel that I’m going up against fellow medical professionals as an expert witness. I see the situation in a different way – it’s about using your clinical knowledge to educate the court on the medical issues involved by providing an unbiased review of the facts of the case.
What would you say to other medical professionals who are considering medico-legal work?
Expert witness work is extremely rewarding. It’s not for everyone and it is time-consuming – so, you need to be mindful of this.
It is important that individuals with the right expertise and experience provide advice and guidance to the legal teams to ensure that the profession and patients are fairly represented. The experience can be empowering to your own practice in striving for excellent patient care.
If you’re interested in learning more about expert witness work, watch our free recorded webinar, ‘Is expert witness work for me?’ This webinar is hosted by Dr Adrian Rees, GP and expert witness.
Inspire MediLaw runs a dedicated course on ‘How to start, build and run a medico-legal practice’.