Understanding Medical Malpractice

Medical malpractice happens when a physician fails to meet the medical standard of care, and a patient is directly harmed as a result. Injured patients may sue their physicians for the damages, including medical expenses and lost earnings.

Medical malpractice risk management is a way for physicians to prevent medical malpractice claims from happening, or reduce the consequences of those claims. Understanding the situations that are more likely to lead to a medical malpractice claim are essential for risk management.

Common Types of Medical Malpractice

Diagnostic errors, such as inaccurate or delayed diagnosis, are the top reason for medical malpractice claims. Surgery-related errors, such as wrong site surgery or leaving a foreign body, are the second-most common type of malpractice claim.

High-Risk Specialties & Procedures

Physicians who perform surgeries or deliver babies are more likely to be sued due to the inherent risks of these procedures. While 32.1% of all physicians have been sued in their careers, 59.3% of general surgeons and 62.4% of obstetrician-gynecologists have faced a lawsuit.

Identifying Potential Risks in Medical Practice

The first step to an effective medical malpractice risk management process is to identify and understand potential risks.

Patient Complaints

Unsolicited complaints from patients are linked to a higher risk of malpractice claims. Complaints offer insights into patient concerns and can be red flags that warn physicians of issues that could escalate into a malpractice claim.

Medication Errors

Medication errors, such as administering the wrong drug, can cause life-threatening complications for patients. Physicians can help prevent errors by writing orders clearly and neatly, and avoiding abbreviations.

Miscommunication Among Health Professionals

Nearly half of medical malpractice claims involve communication failures between healthcare providers, such as communicating a diagnosis or contingency plan incorrectly. Patient handoffs are an especially high-risk time for miscommunication.

Safety Incidents

Safety incidents refer to any unexpected events that harmed a patient, or could have harmed a patient (near misses). These incidents are a potential risk because medical negligence causing harm is a key element required for a malpractice claim.

Effective Risk Management Strategies

There are many risk management strategies that organizations can adopt to help avoid or minimize malpractice claims.

Incorporating Safety Protocols

Safety protocols are procedures that aim to reduce the risk of medical errors. For example, adhering to standardized patient identification protocols helps reduce misidentification risks. Carefully following a surgical safety checklist helps minimize the risk of preventable errors.

Ensuring Effective Communication & Proper Documentation

Documentation can be time-consuming for physicians, but thorough documentation is key for risk management. Not only does it improve communication, but it provides evidence that can be crucial in defending a malpractice claim.

Improving Patient Education

Unrealistic expectations can contribute to malpractice claims. Educating patients about the potential risks and complications of procedures helps them understand that bad outcomes are not necessarily their physician’s fault.

Role of Healthcare Professionals in Managing Risk

Physicians and other healthcare professionals also have a role to play in managing the risk of malpractice claims.

The Doctor-Patient Relationship

Studies have repeatedly shown that a positive doctor-patient relationship reduces the likelihood of patients filing a medical malpractice claim. Some strategies for improving the relationship include being friendly, listening carefully, and using simple, nonmedical language.

Recognizing & Responding to Risks

Healthcare professionals have a responsibility to identify and respond to potential malpractice risks, such as patient complaints or safety incidents. Responding may include escalating issues up the chain of command or seeking legal advice.

Fostering a Safety Culture Within the Medical Team

Physicians have a key role to play in promoting a patient safety culture. They have the opportunity to lead by example by consistently following safety protocols and promptly addressing potential safety concerns.

Importance of Training & Education in Risk Management

Training and education help healthcare professionals understand the importance of medical malpractice risk management.

Ongoing Professional Development & Training for Physicians

Most states require physicians to participate in continuing medical education. Some CME courses focus on medical malpractice risk management and help physicians learn to prevent patient injuries and avoid claims.

Incorporating Risk Management Into Medical Education

Many medical residency programs require some education in risk management. The training helps teach resident physicians how to avoid some of the major risks of medical malpractice claims, such as poor documentation.

Case Studies on Medical Malpractice Risk Management

Case studies present real-life medical malpractice scenarios and help physicians understand what went wrong and what went right.

Review of Successful Risk Mitigation Strategies

A recent case study details a lawsuit brought against a cardiologist for an esophageal perforation following a transesophageal echocardiography (TEE). The suit was ultimately dismissed thanks to sufficient documentation about the procedure’s documentation of risks, benefits, and alternatives.

Lessons From Medical Malpractice Cases

In another case study, a cardiologist was sued for malpractice when a STEMI patient passed away soon after early discharge. The physician said he discussed the risks of early discharge, but the conversation was not clearly documented. The case settled for $250,000, underscoring the importance of documentation.

Legal Aspects of Medical Malpractice Risk Management

Medical malpractice is a complex area of law, but a basic understanding of the topic can help physicians manage risk.

Understanding Medical Malpractice Law

To have a medical malpractice claim, patients must prove that their physician owed them a duty of care and failed to meet that duty, directly causing an injury. Each state has a deadline for patients to start legal action, known as the statute of limitations.

Working With Legal & Insurance Professionals

Malpractice insurance companies offer crucial support to physicians, that includes providing access to confidential risk management helplines. Attorneys also offer legal advice about risk management.

Dealing With Malpractice & Lawsuits

Once a medical malpractice lawsuit is filed, the focus of risk management shifts to determining whether the standard or care was met, whether any breach of the standard of care actually harmed the patient and mitigating potential damages. It involves preparing defense strategies, gathering expert witnesses, and anticipating arguments from the patients’ attorneys.

Technological Innovations in Risk Management

Technological innovations are one of the key medical malpractice risk reduction strategies in healthcare settings.

Electronic Health Records (EHRs)

Electronic health records help physicians document patient interactions accurately and improve communication between healthcare providers. EHR systems can also alert physicians to potential medication problems or other issues that risk patient harm.

Health Information Exchanges (HIEs)

Health Information Exchanges (HIEs) allow physicians and other healthcare professionals to securely share patient information with other providers. By improving the completeness of patient records, HIEs help physicians make more informed decisions, potentially reducing medication errors and other risks that arise from any sharing or transitioning of patient care.

Patient Safety & Quality Improvement Technology

There are a wide range of tools and systems that aim to reduce medical errors. For example, barcode medication administration helps physicians confirm the right patient is receiving the right medication at the right dose. Clinical decision support provides guidance to help physicians make evidence-based decisions.

The Future of Medical Malpractice Risk Management

Focusing on preventive measures is key for reducing the risk of medical malpractice claims. Risk management is not a one-time activity; instead, it is a continuous process of learning from past incidents and adopting new strategies.

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Disclaimer: This article is provided for informational purposes only. This article is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, legal advice. Consult your legal counsel for advice with respect to any particular legal matter referenced in this article and otherwise.