September 26, 2015 • By Dennis Beaver
Picture yourself as a family practice physician, employing three doctors and a large support staff. For close to 40 years your life has been defined by medicine, your patients, family and church.
And then, you can’t recall dosages of commonly prescribed medications or the names of patients in your exam room. Publicly laughing it off as “Senior Moments,” after an examination by a neurologist friend, your fears are confirmed.
“These are early symptoms of Alzheimer’s. There is no choice but to quietly retire and sell your practice. You are a danger to your patients,” he tells you.
That’s what happened to “Dr. Lee,” a highly regarded physician in a California Central Valley town. When first diagnosed in 2013, told to retire and sell his practice, “Mrs. Lee” — controlling, entitled and basking in the light of her husband’s success — rejected the diagnosis, stating, “Your pal is incompetent! You are not retiring!”
In late 2014, aware of dad’s personality changes and worsening memory lapses, daughter, “Stephanie,” had him seen by a Los Angeles neurologist. Learning of the earlier diagnosis, and his wife’s actions, a tearful “Dr. Lee” heard:
“You took an oath to not harm your patients, doctor! I looked you up on Google. You and your wife hold yourselves out as devout people. Knowing that you are a risk to your patients, how can you square that with your faith? You are both hypocrites! I am reporting you today to the medical board.”
“A medical practice like Dr. Lees, with a large patient base, no doubt had a significant value and would have easily made a transition to new ownership,” observes Oregon-based management consultant, Gary Goldstick, author of Business Rx, “How to get in the black and stay there.”
“Typically, when a professional practice is sold — accounting, dental, medical or veterinary — with no advance notice of a change in ownership or fear as a motivation to leave — most clients and patients will remain,” Goldstick observes.
“It is critical to avoid anything that would result in reducing the value of the practice. That means telling no one that it’s being sold until the deal has gone through.
“Especially with a popular physician, if word gets out that he is suddenly retiring, there is an enormous potential of losing patients and staff, in addition to the increased risk of malpractice claims, as patients and the community will start to speculate, asking questions such as:
“Why? What’s going on? This is not like him. Is he sick? Has he been ill for a long time? Is he impaired in some way? Nobody as close to our community as he is would do anything like that unless something really bad was happening. Have I been getting proper care? Should we find a new family doctor?
“Finally, the sale of any business should never be rushed. Your first step is to find a consultant or specialist who knows how to sell that kind of business. Do not disclose this to employees, unless they have a contractual right to purchase it. No strangers walking around. If there are records to be looked at, it must be after hours. It is business as usual until the check is in the bank and it clears,” Goldstick concludes.
Don’t send that letter!
Prior to the sale of the practice, “Mrs. Lee” contacted You and the Law, explained that the doctor was forced to retire and they are trying to sell the practice. “Would you please help us polish a letter we want to send to our patients? Our corporate lawyer has already approved it, but we love your writing style and thought that you could improve it.”
The flattery worked and within minutes we were all reading a deeply moving, terribly sad and dark “Letter to all my patients,” filled with references to other doctors who died in their office while seeing patients. “I have decided to retire, effective immediately,” “Dr. Lee” wrote, giving no explanation as to why.
We immediately phoned “Mrs. Lee,” telling her:
“Do not send this letter! It will cause patients to flee, upset your employees, damage the chances of a good price for the practice and raise serious questions about your husband’s true reasons for suddenly retiring.
“The letter screams, ‘I have been ill,’ and invites a medical malpractice claim from an unhappy patient. I cannot understand how any attorney could ever approve of sending it. Don’t do this!”
But “The Doctor’s Wife” was never wrong, as we would learn, sending the letter, and watching as our predictions came true. A near-mutiny by “Dr. Lee’s” employees was followed by a fire sale of the practice.
The “Lees” no longer live among the people who loved “Dr. Lee.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.