As part of our role as specialists, we wanted to learn more about the risks specific to radiologists, so we reached out to Karen Kruer, RN, CPHRM, and Michelle Foster Earle, ARM, President of OmniSure Consulting Group, for information on the unique risks for radiologists. Here’s what we learned.

Radiologists are second only to neurosurgeons in claims paid out. Their average claim lands at $426,000. Radiology is a unique field of medicine, as it operates in an arena where other physicians cannot: seeing inside the body as a part of the diagnostic process. This specialty also brings a unique set of risks. These are the top five, together with suggestions for reducing risk.

# 1. Error in diagnosis Of all the lawsuits filed against radiologists, error in the following five diagnoses most commonly leads to lawsuits:

  • Breast cancer
  • Non vertebral fractures 
  • Spinal fractures
  • Lung cancer
  • Vascular disease

To decrease error in diagnosis, radiologists should have policies and procedures in place to ensure that with every procedure they obtain a complete patient history, know exactly what they are looking for, request further testing if there is any question, and review the diagnosis with the ordering physician. 

# 2. Procedural complication – There will always be an increased risk when an invasive procedure is performed, and radiology includes many, such as the injection of dye and the insertion of wire stents. However, noninvasive procedures may also increase the risk of complications. Consider an MRI on a patient with metal piercings or devices such as a pacemaker. The best tip for avoiding an adverse outcome is to ensure that a thorough screening is always done before any procedure. For example, the radiologist should know the reason an imaging procedure was ordered, as well as patients’ medical histories and what medications they are taking. Radiologists are trained to look inside a person’s body, but they can also benefit from looking at the outside by putting into place a thorough intake process. Ensuring that support staff is competent and well trained also goes a long way toward reducing the risk of procedural complications. 

# 3. Inadequate communication Thorough communication with both the referring physician and the patient is essential. Radiologists are referred to for help in diagnosing the disease process, so adequate communication begins first with close contact with the physician who ordered the test. It is important to understand the context of the test—specifically, why it was ordered—and to have a clear picture of the patient’s health status. When it comes to patients, the radiologist needs to make certain each patient is given the opportunity for informed consent. That means informing patients of the risks, benefits, and any alternatives that can be chosen in lieu of the test.

Policies and procedures must be in place to handle critical test results. All staff must be informed as to which test results need to be called in to the referring physician immediately. One example would be that of a patient with headaches referred for a CT scan of the head, whose scan shows an aneurysm in the blood vessels. Because this is obviously critical and time-sensitive, the results should be called in immediately. 

# 4. Failure to recommend additional testing – Better safe than sorry—always err on the side of caution. For example, if a patient visits a radiologist for a mammogram because her physician felt a lump in the breast, and for some reason the radiologist cannot find the lump after a mammogram, should a more invasive test, such as a CT scan, be ordered? The answer is yes. Further testing should always be done. It can mean the difference between life and death (and a lawsuit or not). In the case of a dissecting aneurysm, for instance, if it is missed on the original x-ray and no further testing is performed, it is often too late to save the patient. This can be avoided by liberal recommendation of additional testing. 

# 5. Failure to document – Documentation can make or break a case when attorneys become involved. Make certain everything is documented, including all test results, dates, times, and subjects of all conversations with both the referring physician and patient. In the event of an adverse outcome where the court becomes involved, the ability to say and show all conversations is essential. Showing that the treating physician was spoken to, at this time and on this date, and that the patient was given these recommendations is invaluable for risk reduction.  For more information on the importance of documentation, visit this Ultra blog post.