Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Are You a Target For a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit?

While it is true that we cannot control the world around us, certain actions increase the likelihood of a problem. For example, there is a greater probability of having an auto accident if you are talking on a cell phone, trying to eat fast food, selecting a CD to play, doing your makeup or reading something while driving. A medical practice is no different.

A doctor's clinical protocols may be flawless but his doctor/patient relationship can have the same affect as being distracted while driving. Numerous studies have shown that bedside manner can dramatically increase or decrease risk. Patients are less likely to sue a doctor that they like. It's that simple. The good news is that some small efforts can go along way to lessening the likelihood of getting sued. Here are 5 areas that can work in your practice.


The first step is to assure that doctor and staff treat all patients sincerely and honestly, expressing empathy, caring and hope with their patients. Take time to listen to them. Allow them to express their fears and concerns, and then address them as appropriate. The goal is to get every patient to feel as if their success is the practice's utmost concern.

Doctors who, on the other hand, appear to be impatient and impersonal do not evoke good feelings from the patient. If something goes awry, the patient is much quicker to contact a lawyer for redress. Remember, the personal touch is a doctor's best defense against a claim.


Solid patient education is a must. False hopes and unrealistic expectations in the mind of the patient often lead to problems. Just presenting an informed consent for signature does not preclude taking the time to discuss the anticipated benefits, possible complications and alternative procedures. Patients want an accurate assessment of their condition and treatment. If a patient is surprised at an unanticipated outcome, regardless of whether there was any fault on the part of the doctor, he/she may be quick to place blame and look for a lawyer.


This is not likely the first time you have heard this and it will not be the last, but good documentation is your best friend if you are sued. Failure to document testing, diagnosis, treatment and doctor/patient discussions on a timely and accurate basis can make a lawsuit more likely and more difficult to defend. Such risk increases exponentially if the patient is transferred to the care of another physician or specialist who may rely on your medical records.


Communication with a patient, staff and peers is critical. Effective communication with patients is the basis of creating the feelings of empathy and effective education. When a physician has a doubt about the treatment of a patient, a specialist should be contacted to assist with the case or, at the very least, provide advice. Once a second or third doctor is brought into the picture, the establishment of proper channels of communication is paramount. Make sure that everyone understands each other's preferred method of communication and set times for joint review. It is also a good idea to have a referral form that delineates who is responsible for what phases of the treatment, follow-up and prescribing of medication and all of this needs to be communicated to staff as well so that they are prepared to carry out the doctor's orders.


A practice's staff is its front line. Patients will generally deal with staff before and after they meet with the physician so the staff can either improve or erode progress the doctor makes in creating a good doctor/patient relationship. Patients paint their emotional attitude about the doctor with a broad brush that includes the entire operation. If they don't like staff or feel that the staff is not caring, they will again be much more likely to institute a claim against the physician.

A staff's moral comes through to patients very quickly so it is important to create an environment in which the staff enjoys working. Employees who are happy to come to work and help patients will improve a patient's experience immensely.

The best preventative action that any physician or group can undertake is to make a firm commitment to customer satisfaction within the practice. From the receptionists to nurses to back-office clerical staff, everyone must be empathetically focused on the welfare of the patients.

A culture of caring needs to be developed and nurtured from the top down.

J Michael Rosenthal, ARM - President and CEO, RGI Insurance Services Mike Rosenthal is an Associate in Risk Management (ARM) and CEO of RGI Insurance Services. which offers medical malpractice, commercial, life, disability and health insurance services

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