6 Ways to Prevent Patient Injury and Ultimately Avoid Lawsuits for Physicians

Written by Sarah Lim, CA Lic# 0M52397

6 Ways to Prevent Patient Injury and Ultimately Avoid Lawsuits

Risks surround physicians every single day, ranging from alleged diagnostic errors to inadequate follow-up.  This is where risk management comes in and is so crucial to practicing healthcare professionals.  Risk management is a series of strategies designed to reduce the likelihood of injury to the patient and also reduces the likelihood that a suit will result if an injury occurs. 

The following are the most common risks overlooked by physicians:

1.     Faulty Communication

Full disclosure that includes open and honest communication is the best approach to take with your patients.  When your patients feel like the you genuinely care and have their best interest in mind, they tend to be more forgiving of errors.  Even though a bad outcome is not necessarily a result of malpractice, a bad outcome paired with poor communication are what usually drives a patient to consider litigation.  Listen carefully, offer clear answers and instructions, set realistic expectations, document thoroughly, and address complaints.  These are great techniques to avoid risk exposure by improving communication. 

2.     Lack of Informed Consent

A big area where risks can turn into claims is where there is lack of informed patient consent.  Make sure that your patient thoroughly understands and consents to any procedure you will be doing.  For example, with surgeries, the patient needs to be aware of all risks, including death or paralysis.  All risks need to be verbally communicated BEFORE the procedure as well as included in the consent form the patient signs.

3.     Failure to Stay Current on Standards and Training

Many times medical liability issues focus on whether or not the doctor followed current standards of practice.  You need to stay on top of new and revised developments in your area of practice and specialty.  These include changes in disease management for acute and chronic conditions, technological innovations, recently published standards for research and practice and especially the transition to electronic health records.

4.     Inadequate follow-up

Frequent problems resulting in litigation involve physician orders for tests and the labs and x-rays that may follow.  For whatever reason, whether the patient doesn’t follow through with the ordered tests, or the results are filed away before they can be reviewed, if a patient is not aware that further testing or treatments might be needed, the necessary treatment may not be provided.  Therefore, it is critical that the status of these orders are tracked to ensure that none are overlooked or forgotten.

5.     Variations in Procedures and Policies

Practices that are well run have one set of rules that all staff understand and follow.  When procedures start varying from physician to physician or between staff members, it is very easy for errors or omission to occur.  Policies and procedures should be readily available to all staff members.  Policies should provide detailed protocols for dealing with prescriptions, appointments, release of medical information under HIPAA, security, storage, maintenance, and addressing patient complaints.

6.     Avoidance Behavior

Compassionate gestures go a long way.  Some physicians may avoid making rounds in the presence of relative is there has been a bad outcome.  Do not be afraid to face them because it is important to let them know you understand how they feel.  Make eye contact and even put a comforting hand on the arm of the individual you are addressing.  Listen and show that you care.

Always remember that risk management does not remain “fixed” but is constantly moving.  As new technologies and treatments emerge, so will new risks.