Oct 6, 2014
Embrace these simple pointers and suggestions on a daily basis to significantly reduce your risk of a malpractice lawsuit.
In the time it takes you to read this sentence, roughly $7,000 was spent on medical malpractice in the United States alone.
Let that settle in for a second.
That number is based on a HealthAffairs study that estimated annual medical malpractice-related costs to reach approximately $55.6 billion, or 2.4% of total healthcare spending. While that startling number does include all defensive medicine costs – such as prescribing unwarranted tests and treatments to avoid lawsuits – you certainly won’t find solace in the amount of money spent exclusively on medical malpractice lawsuit payouts, which topped $3 billion in 2012 according to Forbes.
Just to pound the point home a little bit more, consider these statistics from this RAND study on malpractice risk:
- By 45 years of age, 36% of physicians in low-risk specialties and 88% of physicians in high-risk specialties are likely to have had at least one malpractice claim.
- By 65 years of age, 75% of physicians in low-risk specialties and 99% of physicians in high-risk specialties are likely to have had at least one malpractice claim.
- Across specialties, the average indemnity payment for malpractice claims was $274,887.
The purpose of bombarding you with these formidable numbers is neither to frighten nor intimidate you – working under the constant threat of a potential lawsuit on a daily basis is enough to keep most healthcare professionals wary. If not, having the importance of avoiding a malpractice claim incessantly drilled into your head through continual education and training will definitely suffice. The purpose of these numbers is merely to advocate the measures you should take to steer clear of putting yourself in situations that may result in a malpractice lawsuit.
Naturally, there are going to be certain situations where a malpractice claim is inevitable due to reasons outside your control. However, most malpractice cases stem from circumstances that are easily preventable. There’s a common misconception that all malpractice cases emerge from some type of severe surgical error. While the antagonizing term leads most to immediately conclude a drastic mistake was made, the fact is that most malpractice claims arise from a simple mistake. More often than not, the difference between a lawsuit and a healthy doctor-patient relationship comes down to being cognizant of the situation and managing the simple, intrinsic details to avoid any potential damages caused by extrinsic events.
Follow these 10 simple tips to avoid malpractice claims:
There’s a reason it was written three times. Simply put, there is no element more important in avoiding a malpractice claim than a healthy doctor-patient relationship built on clear and effective communication between one another. Communication-related errors are the single biggest cause of malpractice claims. Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter how talented, educated, or experienced of a doctor you are, if your bedside manner is always creating friction between you and your patient’s. Be courteous. Ask your patient questions. Listen and learn from what they say, and give genuine feedback.
A malpractice lawsuit is not fun. Dealing with lawyers is even worse. At the end of the day, however, the lawyer is not the one suing you. Your issue isn’t with the lawyer; it’s with the patient. So rather than spending an ample amount of time and money dealing with an attorney, focus on the true matter at hand and improve your relationship with your patients. Ultimately, you have two choices: you can frame a doctor-physician relationship that will either protect your career or jeopardize it.
While good communication skills are the most important trait for avoiding a malpractice claim in an interpersonal manner, proper documentation skills are the most important in an administrative manner. Explicit, unambiguous documentation can come in handy should you ever need to recount a certain situation and justify what occurred in order to defend your actions. Conversely, inadequate or indefinite documentation leaves you infinitely more susceptible to a malpractice lawsuit.
Most healthcare professionals are not strangers to documentation requirements, but many can still improve dramatically. Needless to say, it’s impractical for you to document everything that goes on between you and your patients. However, here are several pointers to keep in mind when describing your experiences:
- Write legibly (you’d think this is an unnecessary tip, but sadly it is not).
- Date, time and sign every entry.
- Specifically, identify the people in your report.
- Record all findings, advice, instructions, decisions, etc. on any significant issues.
- If you’re not sure whether or not it’s important enough to be documented, document it.
The first step to abiding by the law is understanding what the law is. Medical malpractice laws differ from state to state, and even from hospital to hospital. These regulations are often revised within each jurisdiction. It is crucial for you to not only be aware of the current standards in which you are required to comply with, but also stay up-to-date on all changes and updates to those standards throughout your tenure.
Operating on a patient without informed consent from the patient or guardian is just asking for a malpractice lawsuit. It is essential to discuss all elements of a procedure – risks, costs, etc. – before the procedure takes place. Tracking back to the first two tips, good communication skills are necessary to discuss the circumstances with your patient, and good documentation skills are necessary to catalog all details of the situation. While this may seem like Malpractice 101, it continues to be a common issue.
It is important to follow-up on several different fronts in order to keep clear of malpractice claims. First and foremost, always follow-up with your patients after examinations or conversations to receive valuable feedback directly from the source. If any participating specialists or additional physicians are also involved with a certain patient’s case, be sure to follow-up with them as well to stay updated and cover all the bases of that patient’s situation. It is best to have set protocols in place so that all members of your practice can work cohesively to provide documented follow-ups on each of your patients in order to guard against malpractice risks.
Managing your patient’s expectations throughout the entire process is essential in regards to avoiding a malpractice claim. Make sure to be as accurate and forthright as possible when discussing the available courses of action, as well as any possible outcomes or implications that may arise from the decisions that are made. In the business world, we often hear the mantra “under-promise and over-deliver” thrown around when it comes to managing expectations. While this certainly trumps its counterpart of over-promising and under-delivering, brutally honest and open communication is the best approach to managing a patient’s expectations.
A helpful technique to develop a better understanding of the situation from a different perspective is to take a step back and put yourself in your patient’s shoes. Use your common sense here: anything that would irritate you will most likely irritate them. Reply to calls and emails in a timely fashion, don’t rush them, and make them feel that you are truly devoted to their health. Obviously, your patients are going to be very concerned with their own health, but when they are meeting with you, they want to believe that you are sincerely committed to them as well. Considering things from your patient’s point of view will make you a more empathetic doctor, and will go a long way towards establishing and maintaining a beneficial doctor-patient relationship.
Most importantly, keep an open mind when it comes to your patients; don’t buy into stereotypes or get too caught up in first impressions. From a medical standpoint, tread very carefully when it comes to making ultimatums, promises, or conclusions. It’s ok to set deadlines, but always keep them realistic and allow for extra time so that unexpected occurrences don’t prevent you from either missing said deadlines or rushing your work to meet them.
As a doctor, you have spent thousands of hours honing your craft and expanding your educational horizons. That having been said, expecting you to know how to treat every patient for every symptom by knowing every prescription is laughably unrealistic. You aren’t going to have all the answers, and you cannot expect yourself to. As a doctor, you owe it to your patients to leave your pride at home and not hesitate from seeking additional consultation for matters outside of your normal scope of practice. If you don’t know something, ask for help. There are plenty of specialists out there that can help, and under no circumstance should your stubbornness be placed before the health of a patient.
Many hospitals and practices are facing dozens of deficiencies that limit their abilities, such as understaffing and the lack of funds. While these hurdles will certainly impact the overall capability of your practice as a whole, it’s important to not let these shortcomings impact your work as an individual. Don’t let obstacles lead you into developing careless habits that will have a negative effect on your patients. Understaffing and limited budgets are significant issues in the healthcare industry that must be addressed on a large scale but do not let that become an excuse for you to lower your own expectations and exertion.