Simple Communication Can Help Prevent Costly Malpractice Suits

Ed Rabinowitz
Published: Friday, Jun 24, 2011
Each year the healthcare industry weathers a heavy financial burden: the cost of medical malpractice claims. In the article “10 Ways to Reduce Medical Malpractice Exposure—Doctors, Lawyers, and Lawsuits,” which was published in the March 2002 issue of Physician Executive, Dr V. Franklin Colon reported that the annual dollar costs were well into the billions. The solution to the problem, however, is not to pay out exorbitant premiums to ensure adequate malpractice insurance coverage. It is much simpler than that.

“I think oftentimes the simplest things are the most effective,” said Gerald Chambers, a medical malpractice defense attorney at the law firm of Turner Padget Graham & Laney P.A., based in Columbia, South Carolina. “Communication is one of the major factors in avoiding litigation and assisting in the defense of a lawsuit, as well.”

And it takes only a few minutes.

Building Rapport

Peter Hoff man is an attorney and chair of the Professional Liability Group at Eckert Seamans, a law firm in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He said that people go into medicine be cause they want to help others. They work hard in college and medical school, and then at some point between their second year in medical school and when they become an attending physician the situation changes. For many physicians, several factors—such as the sheer amount of work and responsibility— can cause them to treat patients as cases, not as people.

“Th e people and families that they’re dealing with…are under a tremendous amount of stress [and] uncertainty, and they know their life is changing—and certainly not changing for the better,” Hoff man explained. “I think that the most important thing for [oncology fellows] to realize is that they’re dealing with people, not 3 x 5 index cards. And they owe to their patients and to themselves, the time that it takes— maybe time that they don’t think they have—to develop a relationship and rapport with these people and with their families.”

Chambers echoed those thoughts. He said that numerous lawsuits are brought by patients or their family members simply because they got angry with the physicians. Th ey feel that the physicians have not spent enough time talking with the patients and helping them to understand their cases.

“Sometimes it’s just that the patient is upset with their doctor because they feel like they’re not being given the time and the attention that they deserve,” Chambers said. “Often this is avoided by simply spending a couple of extra minutes with them.”

He also pointed out that discussions between physicians are equally important, especially in an oncology practice, where various consultations with the patient are necessary and sophisticated lab tests need to be ordered. It is also critical to communicate with the lab to ensure that the results of an ordered test do not slip through the cracks.

“And make sure the results are being communicated between the various physicians who may be taking care of a patient,” Chambers added. “Because often it’s not just 1 doctor who’s taking care of a patient, it’s a team of doctors. And you need to make sure that everyone understands what the game plan is and who’s responsible for what.”

"Gerald Chambers said that numerous lawsuits are brought by patients or their family members simply because the got angry with the physicians."

Detailed Documentation

Along with communication, documentation is critical for helping to avoid malpractice claims. Even effective, thorough communication should be documented. Dr Barry Lang was an orthopedic surgeon for 23 years and has worked for the past 15 years at Law Doctors, a medical malpractice agency based in Boston, Massachusetts. He claimed that he was able to effectively link communication and documentation during his years as a practicing physician.

“I had a Dictaphone in every examining room, and the purpose was several-fold,” Lang explained. “Number 1, when you speak with a patient—when you take their history and describe what their treatment program is going to be—it helps to have the patient hear it a second time. And since you have to make notes of the encounter anyway, you might as well give the patient the opportunity to hear it a second time.”

Lang continued, “So after I had completed taking the information from the patient after the examination, instead of waiting until the end of the day to try to recall what may have gone on with 20 or more patients—or just scribbling a few notes where I might leave something important out, and then leaving the patient with just 1 conversation between the two of us—I would pick up the Dictaphone and I would dictate a complete note of what just transpired.”

Lang said the Dictaphone not only saved him time and effort, it gave the patient the opportunity to hear the exchange a second time and opened the door to an additional opportunity for discussion.

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