Avoid Lawsuits: How to Be a Malpractice-Free Practice

In a 2010 study, 90 percent of physicians reported that doctors order more tests and procedures than patients actually need. The reason? To protect themselves against lawsuits.

This trend is known as “defensive medicine” – a practice intended to protect the doctor, not the patient. Yet this overly cautious approach to care can be far more hazardous than self-protecting physicians might care to admit.

“Defensive medicine is rooted in the goal of avoiding mistakes,” writes Dr. Sanjay Gupta in the New York Times. “But each additional procedure or test, no matter how cautiously performed, injects a fresh possibility of error.”

Over-testing to avoid lawsuits puts your patients at risk – potentially decreasing the quality of care they receive – and increases healthcare costs. It’s critical to manage your malpractice risk effectively, but how do you do it without placing your patients in danger?

Be Informed
Sometimes the procedures a doctor conducts most often or considers the simplest are the ones that go awry towards a malpractice situation. That’s because the physician, knowledgeable as he or she is about the course of action being taken, doesn’t know the latest information on it, having failed to stay current with new studies and medical literature.

Devour as much up-to-date information about your specialty as possible to be fully informed on the specs of every procedure rendered in your office and protect yourself from problem incidents.

Document It All
When recording a patient visit into a chart or EHR, physicians often leave a lot out. It’s a given that you can’t document an encounter in its entirety, but don’t skip details that could help cover you down the road in the event of a poor outcome. Always be sure to answer the question “why?”

“We most often fail to see a discussion of why you made a particular decision,” say healthcare law attorneys Patrick T. O’Rourke and Kari M. Hershey. “As you know, physicians often have a broad range of treatment choices. Including information about why you selected a particular course of treatment—in light of the available data—makes the record more understandable.”

Communicate
The answer to that question “why?” is important for your patient to know, too, as are the risks inherent to any procedure being performed. A patient who’s informed and aware is less likely to become litigious.

This is true even when things go wrong, which is why directness and honesty are critical in the event of medical error. As I’ve written before, a friend of mine chose not to sue after suffering a life-threatening medical mistake because her physician took complete responsibility for the error. Healthcare lawyers agree that timely, clear communication is critical to avoiding lawsuits.

Be Nice
Don’t just communicate professionally; communicate courteously. Unless they’re in your office for a routine check-up, your patients are in a vulnerable position when seeking your care. The more kindness they feel from you, the more likely they are to see you as a trusted partner in their health, rather than a future legal adversary.

The credo to be kind falls on your entire care team and staff, whose behavior reflects back on you in a patients’ overall perception of your practice.

Be Consistent
The same level of care should be administered to each and every patient that comes to your office. When procedures are administered, that rule becomes especially critical. Failing to follow protocol by missing just a few steps of your normal process can result in an error or variation of usual outcome.

A few seconds can make the difference between getting a patient out the door healthy and getting hit with a malpractice suit. Never skip steps, never rush through a procedure and never cut corners. Use checklists to ensure that you and your team execute each care episode properly.

Embrace & Use Feedback
Have multiple patients informed you that a specific procedure hurts more than they thought it would? Incorporate that into your consultative discussion with the next patient you’ll render it to. Did another individual seem to really appreciate the follow-up call you made the day after surgery? Consider picking up the phone every time you perform it.

Administer surveys, put out a suggestion box and have your staff ask patients about their experiences, then put the feedback to good use. This cycle engages patients in a dialogue that invests them in the healthcare process with your practice and gives you an opportunity to notice areas where you can improve your performance.

Know It Can Still Happen
Despite good intentions and good care, you may still get served with a suit at some point in your career, so keep that in mind even when you’re focused on staying malpractice-free. Protect yourself properly with insurance and have good counsel available to lessen the impact a lawsuit could have on your practice.

How do you take care to avoid malpractice suits?