When Francis R.Coughlin Jr., M.D. ’52, decided to quit surgery at age 58, he reinvented himself as a medical malpractice lawyer. He gets some grief about it from other physicians, but Coughlin has enjoyed learning how lawyers think. And medicine remains his first love.
As the new president of the Association of Yale Alumni in Medicine (AYAM), Coughlin hopes to investigate how medicine can incorporate the needs and perspectives of women, who constitute more than half of the current first-year class at the School of Medicine. Coughlin, who succeeds Past President Gilbert F. Hogan, M.D. ’57, also hopes to strengthen ties between Yale and community hospitals in Connecticut and to foster links between new graduates and older alumni.
Coughlin trained as a cardiothoracic surgeon, taking part in the first open-heart surgeries at Massachusetts General Hospital in the late 1950s. He spent 25 years in private practice in Stamford, Conn., raising eight children with his wife, Barbara Blunt Coughlin, M.D. ’52, a medical school classmate. When a cataract in one eye marred his depth perception in 1985, he left surgery.
Since graduating from the University of Bridgeport School of Law at age 61, Coughlin has consulted with Connecticut attorneys for insurance companies that defend physicians and advised a New York law firm that prosecutes them. He evaluates cases for their merits and plans strategy but does not litigate. Since 1990, he has been vice-chair of the Connecticut Commission on Medico-legal Investigations, which oversees the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. When he became an attorney, Coughlin was intrigued by the different modes of thought used by doctors and lawyers. He says doctors make decisions based on a “convergence of probabilities,” discarding facts that seem irrelevant. Lawyers, on the other hand, “align all the facts in parallel lines of argument—the prosecution argument and the defense argument. ... A lawyer could move from the plaintiff’s side to the defense side and not miss a beat.
“I think of myself as a physician first and always,” says Coughlin, 75. “Medicine is a very fine way to spend a lifetime. It makes a real difference in the lives of people. In the law, in the civil justice system, the remedy for legal wrongs is monetary.” Yet, he adds, “The medical malpractice system is very important, and it is important that it be used properly.”
As AYAM president, Coughlin plans to study how women are affecting medicine. “We are going to have to design the curriculum and develop expectations of physicians based on those who serve as physicians, so let’s find out about the role of women in medicine,” he says. Coughlin believes that women have taught men new approaches to teamwork. From women, he says, “we have learned more and more how we depend on each other. We have learned that it’s important to share information, to arrive at consensus.”