Any doctor faces the possibility of a malpractice lawsuit at any time. It’s not an irrational fear, it’s a fact: a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that an estimated 75 percent of physicians in low-risk specialties such as pediatrics and a whopping 99 percent of physicians in high-risk surgical specialties would face a malpractice claim by the age of 65. And Medical Economics named “avoiding liability” one of the top 15 challenges facing physicians in 2015.
Many lawsuits, however, are caused not by medical errors but by poor communication and misunderstandings. Establishing solid, engaged relationships with your patients can minimize the chances of this as well as provide numerous other benefits like improving patient retention and outcomes. Here are five ways to make sure you’re not opening yourself up to unnecessary risk.
1. Understand that happy patients are less litigious patients.
Patient satisfaction and risk of malpractice lawsuits go hand in hand. This is because patients are more likely to remember how you made them feel than what you did or said. A little common courtesy, like greeting patients by name and making eye contact, goes a long way. Glancing at your watch can make patients feel rushed, and turning your back on them to enter notes in an EHR can feel impersonal. Making patients feel devalued in these ways, however minor they may seem, is one of the top mistakes that can lead to lawsuits, says Sue Larsen, president and director of education at Astute Doctor Education, Inc. in Physician’s Practice.
2. Be prepared and personal.
Take the time to review patients’ charts before the exam. Make notes about their families, hobbies, and anything else that can help you establish a good relationship and show patients that they are real people to you, not just numbers. Once again, EHRs factor in: be aware that they generally contain a timestamp showing when you reviewed a patient’s chart, and for how long. This becomes part of the medical record and could be an important part of your defense in the event of a lawsuit, notes Jeffrey D. Brunken, president and chairman of the board of The MGIS Companies, a provider of physician disability and malpractice insurance.
3. Don’t forget to follow up.
Physicians who have protocols in place to ensure there is follow-up regarding missed appointments and tests are less likely to be sued, according to Brunken. But more than that, a quick follow-up call a few days after the appointment to see how patients are doing is a nice touch to show them that they are not “out of sight, out of mind,” and also to ensure that they are following through with any treatments or tests they need.
4. Communicate clearly and educate thoroughly.
There’s no such thing as being too thorough when it comes to patient education and communication. Patients may not be able to take in all the information you give them during appointments. There may be a language or literacy barrier, or they may be visual learners who learn better by seeing than by listening or reading. For this reason, it’s crucial to provide top-notch patient education materials that a wide range of patients can understand, access after the appointment, and share with family members and caregivers.
5. Stay up to speed.
Staying current on your CME requirements and advances in your specialty aren’t the only ways you should be educating yourself. It’s important to keep up with advances in health care and technology, such as being familiar with the latest social media channels, because your patients are hearing about them on the news and the Internet, notes Brunken. So even if you don’t perform specific procedures or use every new piece of technology, “your ability to discuss them with your patients will reinforce their confidence in you.”
Patients who feel respected and heard, and who trust their doctor to provide them with the best information and medical care are far less likely to sue. But the best advice to avoid lawsuits may also be the simplest: be nice.
There is no specific legal claim that can be made for failure to show empathy to a patient, but this is one of the biggest reasons why some doctors get sued and others are beloved by their patients, writes Jerry Helzner, senior editor of Ophthalmology Management, in the post, “Avoiding 10 Common Malpractice Claims.” “Plaintiff attorneys have commented many times that even when their clients have an airtight malpractice claim, many are reluctant to follow through because ‘Dr. X has just been so nice to me.’”
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