Here are the top five reasons that physicians get sued – and some prevention steps they may take to reduce risk:
#1. Poor communication with patients
This is by far the biggest issue. The majority of lawsuits filed by patients or their families are done simply to find out what actually happened during their treatment. Following a bad outcome or adverse event the patient often feels, in retrospect, as though their physician failed to provide all the necessary information or failed to answer their questions and concludes that the lack of information is what led to the bad outcome. Patients or their families hire an attorney to access medical records and once these are reviewed carefully, small discrepancies are often found and lawsuits are filed. This is so preventable. If physicians take even a few minutes of extra time to answer all questions and address all concerns, patients and their families will walk away feeling as though they had all the information, even if a bad outcome occurred. They will be much less likely to seek the counsel of an attorney.
#2. Poor bedside manner
The type and quality of relationship a physician develops with their patient is important. Patients want to trust and believe what their physician says. How a physician responds to patients makes a difference. As a general rule, people rarely sue their friends. Not to say that physicians must befriend their patients, but a warm relationship certainly helps. Even if a physician has contributed to a bad outcome, if the patient or their family likes and admires the physician, it’s unlikely they will pursue a lawsuit. How can this type of relationship be achieved? Doctors need to show compassion, make eye contact, spend time with each patient, and really listen. They do not necessarily have to spend a long time with patients, but quality time is essential. Remember that there’s a reason they went into medicine – most likely it included the desire to help people – really caring about each patient. If a physician is unhappy it will show – and could become a liability for the practice.
#3. Delay or change in diagnosis
Some patients perceive a delay in concrete diagnosis or a change in an earlier diagnosis with a physician not knowing what they’re doing. If a patient feels this way following their care, they are more likely to pursue a lawsuit. For example, patients often don’t realize that medical tests take time to return – and there are certain lab tests that may take days or weeks. This goes back to communication – setting clear expectations – if the physician tells the patient exactly how long to expect for the results, and those results are returned on time, the patient is more likely to feel like the physician is trustworthy. Physicians’ offices must have an efficient procedure in place for getting results back and delivered to patients in a timely manner. This reduces the time patients are waiting and worrying and potentially losing trust in their physician.
#4. Lack of informed consent
When patients or their families feel as though they were not provided all available information, they are more likely to pursue a lawsuit. Informed consent should occur with every patient encounter. Obviously the patient is in the physician’s office because there’s a problem and the physician’s job is to provide solutions. Patients must be informed on the details of these solutions, especially when the prescribed treatment involves an invasive procedure. Time must be taken to explain what the care plan entails, the risks and benefits and any alternative treatment options. Patients are more likely to stand behind a physician’s choices following their care – no matter the outcome – if they feel they were given all the information, and that they themselves had a choice.
#5. Erroneous documentation
Accurate and thorough documentation of a patient’s care is extremely important. Following a bad outcome or an adverse event, the first thing that the patient’s attorney will request is a copy of their medical records. These will be highly scrutinized. Any incorrect or conflicting information contained within the medical record is an immediate red flag to the attorney as well as the patient. Don’t document anything that wasn’t actually communicated to the patient – otherwise the patient may feel they were deceived or lied to.
Bottom Line – All of these reasons come back to the #1 issue: communication. For a busy physician, it can feel as though there simply isn’t enough time to talk to patients, but from a risk management perspective, the importance cannot be stressed enough. It’s important to take the time to communicate every step of a patient’s care with them – to listen and answer their questions. Not only does this help to build trust, it can also minimize the risk of a lawsuit. Excellent communication is a “win-win.”