What gets Physicians Sued?

It all comes down to communication, thoroughness, and attention to detail

Of doctors older than 55, 61% have been sued at least once.[1] Malpractice payouts have been climbing in recent years – reaching $3.9 billion in 2014 – and many wonder why these numbers are climbing.[2] While medical errors may be a top guess, the Texas Medical Liability Trust has discovered that there is much more at play in malpractice cases, and has compiled research explaining how physicians can find themselves in hot water.[3] Below are some common errors they found that play into cases filed against doctors:

  1. Failure to listen, communicate empathetically, and spend adequate time with patients

Research has shown that a physician’s basic interpersonal skills, such as listening and showing respect, are just as important to a patient as their clinical skills are.[4] Patients value quality time, and they feel their doctors won’t be able to treat them properly, or even correctly, if they don’t know each other well enough.

  1. Keeping illegible or incomplete documentation

Poor documentation can impede care, can signal to the patient that the physician is careless, and does not make for a good defense against a malpractice claim.[5] Even if a doctor follows all protocol, there is no physical evidence that the physician is in the right if there is improper documentation.

  1. Failing to establish standards of conduct for office staff

Rudeness, insensitivity, or inattention to patients by any staff members can affect the relationship patients have with their hospital experience, all directly tied to their feelings about their doctor. Staff must be adequately trained, monitored, and understanding of the importance of friendliness.

  1. Being inaccessible to patients

When patients experience long wait times, failure to return phone calls, and inattention during hospitalization, their interpretation is that their doctor doesn’t care.[6] Physicians need to keep a tight schedule and have policies in place for returning calls so as not to fall prey to allegations of negligence.

  1. Failing to order and follow up on tests in a timely manner

Allegations of failure to diagnose and treat often come from simple forgetfulness of a physician when it comes to ordering and following up on tests. Employing a tracking system can ensure patients are obtaining tests.[7]

  1. Failing to refer, track referrals, or communicate with referring physician

While patients are responsible for following through with referrals, often they claim their physician didn’t stress the importance or did not explain the reason for the referral.[8] Again, implementing a tracking system to follow referrals can improve patient care and reduce liability concerns.[9]

  1. Prescribing medication inappropriately  

When adverse drug reactions occur or a prescribed medication fails to act as promised, doctors can be charged failing to check a patient’s chart or not considering how a prescription’s side effects will interact with other drugs.[10] Physicians need to take the time to double check, inform patients of side-effects, and be familiar with the drugs they prescribe.

  1. Providing improper care during emergency situations 

Whether inaccurately assessing a situation over the phone or miscommunicating with ED staff, physicians can struggle if they are not present when their patient is experiencing a medical emergency. Protocols for telephone triage and thorough documentation in the ED need to be implemented to eliminate these concerns.[11]

[1] Westgate, Aubrey, “Ten Notable Physician-related Malpractice Statistics,” Physicians Practice, May 17, 2013, http://www.physicianspractice.com/blog/ten-notable-physician-related-malpractice-statistics

[2] Gower, Jeremy, “2015 Medical Malpractice Payout Analysis,” Diederich Healthcare, March 9, 2015, http://www.diederichhealthcare.com/the-standard/2015-medical-malpractice-payout-analysis/

[3] 10 things that get physicians sued, (Austin: Texas Medical Liability Trust, 2009)

[4] Ibid, 4

[5] Ibid, 7

[6] Ibid, 12

[7] Ibid, 14

[8] Ibid, 16

[9] Ibid, 17

[10] Ibid, 18

[11] Ibid, 21