3 factors to focus on with your patients

The bad news is that most doctors will face a malpractice lawsuit at some point in their careers. A 2011 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that an estimated 75 percent of physicians in low-risk specialties and a shocking 99 percent of physicians in high-risk surgical specialties would face a malpractice claim by the age of 65. 

According to the most recent Medscape Malpractice Report, more than half of 4,000 physicians across 25+ specialties have been named in a lawsuit. Claims against ophthalmologists are infrequent, and 90 percent of thousands of liability claims over a 10-year period received verdicts favorable to the doctor, according to the Review of Ophthalmology. However, “cataract and corneal surgeries were the most prevalent and costly claims.” 

The good news is that you have more control over your malpractice risk than you might think. Here’s what you need to know. 

The top 3 contributing factors in many malpractice lawsuits

In three out of 10 medical malpractice cases in which patients suffered some degree of harm, a breakdown in communication was a direct cause. The most recent report from CRICO, a division of The Risk Management Foundation of the Harvard Medical Institutions Incorporated, analyzed more than 7,000 malpractice cases where doctor-patient communication breakdown was to blame. 

The top contributing factors were: 

  • inadequate informed consent (13 percent)
  • unsympathetic response to patient complaint (13 percent)
  • inadequate education and follow-up instructions (5 percent and 4 percent, respectively)
In 3 out of 10 medical malpractice cases in which patients suffered harm, a breakdown in doctor-patient communication was a direct cause.

Informed consent, while a routine part of health care, is an often misunderstood concept for patients and doctors alike. What it is not: signing a form or checking a box. What it is: an opportunity to educate patients and empower them to make informed decisions about their care. 

It’s important to note that obtaining informed consent is not enough to avoid a malpractice lawsuit. “Many patients who sue claim that their surgeon didn’t give them enough information about the operation or didn’t give enough time to decide whether the operation was right for them,” according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

'Many patients who sue claim that their surgeon didn’t give them enough information about the operation or didn’t give enough time to decide whether the operation was right for them,' says the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Click To Tweet

Tools such as patient education videos and simulators can help doctors provide information to patients that is easily understood and can be shared with family members and caregivers. This can save doctors time since videos can be emailed to patients ahead of the appointment, and patients are more likely to arrive with fewer, better questions. 

Digital tools can also help manage patient expectations by showing them possible outcomes for a particular procedure. Rendia’s Outcome Simulator was designed for exactly this purpose: to help doctors better communicate the value of advanced IOLs or the side effects of refractive surgery to their patients by showing them what their vision could look like before and after various procedures.

The importance of empathy

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: empathy matters in health care. While most doctors now recognize the importance of communication with patients and are working to improve it, empathy is harder to grasp. According to PatientEngagementHIT.com, “Paramount to [patient-provider communication] skills is physician empathy, a somewhat elusive factor that few medical professionals understand.”

Defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” empathy plays a big role in improving patient satisfaction and can even impact outcomes. A study published in the Annals of Family Medicine found that patients reported better outcomes when they perceived more physician empathy. 

A doctor’s job is to care for the patient. The point of empathy is to make patients feel cared for—and it can take as little as 56 seconds.

So how does a doctor convey empathy? While your job is to care for your patient, the point of empathy is to make them feel cared for. It starts with recognizing how patients are feeling when they walk into your practice. Many patients may be frightened, worried, or in pain. They might have fears about a procedure or be concerned about the cost. Stated PatientEngagementHIT.com, “Fear can keep patients from retaining important clinical information and following care instructions properly. Thus, it is critical that [providers] detect that emotion and allay those fears in their patients.”

Most doctors recognize the importance of connecting with their patients; their main objection is the perceived time this requires. But this is a misconception, according to Press Ganey Chief Nursing Officer Christy Dempsey, MSN, CNOR, CENP. In fact, making a personal connection with a patient can take as little as 56 seconds, she told PatientEngagementHIT.com.

It starts with simply focusing your attention on the patient. Greet them by name and make eye contact. Briefly review the reason they’re there. Then Dempsey shifts the conversation by asking, “When you’re not in the hospital [or in my office], what do you like to do?” Patients usually give answers about their families or hobbies, providing her a way to connect with them, say, by asking about their grandchildren or golf game. 

This entire interaction can take as little as a minute or two. Yet the benefits and potential to reduce liability are invaluable. According to the Medscape Malpractice Report, in response to the question, “What are the most effective ways to discourage lawsuits?” 53 percent of physicians said “Better communication and rapport with patients.”

As the CRICO study stated, “Information is the currency of safe care, and communication is the vehicle by which that currency moves.”


To streamline and modernize the way you communicate with your patients, get in touch with us today.