We live in a litigious age — approximately 15% of all personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits filed throughout the nation result from medical malpractice. This translates into roughly 20,000 medical malpractice claims filed each year, despite estimates that up to 120,000 annual cases of medical negligence occur. It is likely that 1 in 14 physicians face medical malpractice litigation each year. About 90% of these lawsuits are settled out of court, typically without payment to the plaintiff. Physicians need to take steps to ensure they are doing everything they can to minimize their risk.
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Creating positive relationships
One key to reducing the incidence of malpractice litigation is communication. It is important to acknowledge and calmly discuss issues that could affect outcomes, such as non-compliance with the care plan. Even if family members are involved, talk to patients directly, but recognize that there might be problems with comprehension, cognition or memory. If a patient consents, having a family member or proxy act as a listener and possible interpreter can improve understanding.
Practitioners should keep in mind that patients and family members are likely to use the Internet as a source of medical information. As a result, providers need to take the time to educate patients, as well as the patient’s family, about the side effects and the risks associated with each treatment option.
Education is important when explaining the logic behind which medical tests are appropriate, rather than ordering additional tests to appease the patient or a family member. This will help explain the reasoning behind the recommended care plan and will make the patient and the patient’s family feel like they are involved in care decisions. By taking the time to educate patients on processes and regulations, providers can save time from having to justify their actions down the line. Also, by helping patients understand their situation thoroughly, patients will get better care and be less likely to sue because of a misunderstanding.
Putting expectations in writing
When taking on a new patient, many practices ask the patient to read and sign statements that describe the conditions of their treatment and establish expectations on both sides. These may include defining the patient’s responsibilities in terms of payment for services, appointment cancellations and follow-up appointments. While the documentation for new patients is vital, physicians should be sure to update documentation for existing patients over time.
When updating an existing patient’s forms/records, be sure to keep the original forms. If errors were made while completing forms, include an addendum, but never delete or try to otherwise modify the existing record.
Creating thorough documentation
In this instance, more is better. It is vital that physicians consistently and thoroughly document patient visits. Good documentation includes current charts and records. Documentation should also incorporate thorough and specific details about the exact care provided.
Providers need to document all verbal interactions between the care team and the patient and his or her family members. Documentation should include the rationale of the provider’s decision and the understanding of potential complications from the patient’s side. Including reports about how the patient is feeling about the care he or she is receiving is also important.
In addition to requiring oral consent before a procedure, have each patient read and sign a form that lists all potential side effects and complications. If something does go wrong, having warnings in writing and signed can discourage a lawsuit.
While thorough documentation requires additional time commitments, keep in mind that lack of documentation often is a clincher in a medical malpractice lawsuit when it comes down to a “he-said/she-said” situation.
Preparing for patient visits
It is all too easy to get so busy and rushed that you enter a patient examination room with no idea of who you are seeing or why. This is a route for trouble. The most efficient means of preparation is the review of a thoroughly updated patient chart. This approach reduces the likelihood that you will make a mistake. It also confirms to patients that you are there for them, taking the time to treat them as individuals — not as just another patient.
Most medical procedures and policies have been developed for a reason. If you do not follow them, you are more likely to find yourself in a situation that increases your risk of a medical malpractice lawsuit if something goes wrong. Being consistent in your procedures is vitally important. In medical malpractice, as in health care in general, prevention is the best medicine.
For more information, contact Antwone Turner at 312.670.7444. Visit ORBA.com to learn more about our Health Care Group.