As a hospital administrator, few things are scarier than the thought of a medical malpractice case against one of your doctors. It’s enough to keep you up at night and make you fearful about the future. But it’s not something that should keep you in constant fear. With a little strategic forethought, you can reduce your exposure and do a better job serving the patients you’ve been tasked with caring for.
Medical Malpractice: A Look at the Numbers
According to an intensive conducted by Johns Hopkins patient safety experts, there are more than 250,000 deaths per year due to medical error in the United States alone. This makes it the third leading cause of death for Americans. But in reality, the figures are likely even higher.
“Incidence rates for deaths directly attributable to medical care gone awry haven’t been recognized in any standardized method for collecting national statistics,” says Martin Makary, M.D., M.P.H., professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The medical coding system was designed to maximize billing for physician services, not to collect national health statistics, as it is currently being used.”
Statistically speaking, the total number of paid medical malpractice claims has dropped off each year over the past decade, but that doesn’t remove the risk for hospitals and their medical staff members. Common medical malpractice cases include birth injuries, surgical errors, medication errors, misdiagnoses, anesthesia errors, emergency room errors, and radiology mistakes. And unless you’re proactively addressing each of these problem areas, you could face some problems.
Practical Ways to Reduce Malpractice Exposure
Every medical facility – hospitals especially – needs a proactive strategy for reducing exposure to medical malpractice claims. While you certainly already have a number of rules and regulations in place, it’s time to vamp up your efforts. Here are a few steps you can take:
1. Document Everything
Doctors are taught from very early on in their education that everything has to be documented in a patient’s chart. As the saying goes, if you didn’t put it in the chart, you didn’t do it.
Most doctors are meticulous with charting any actual care or treatment they’ve given, but it’s just as significant to document conversations. It’s also important to avoid erasing or changing anything in a file – even if you realize that it’s been entered incorrectly. Definitely include an addendum with an explanation, but don’t manipulate the file. This is a recipe for disaster.
2. Always Get Informed Consent
Getting patients to sign paperwork and releases may seem like a mere formality, but you can’t rush through this process.
Before asking patients to sign consent forms, ensure they receive proper explanations and briefings on potential risks and benefits. Lack of informed consent – or even lack of proper informed consent – frequently gets added on to medical malpractice claims. It’s not worth taking a chance.
3. Empower Patients
The more your doctors educate patients on the pros, cons, risk, and benefits of different procedures and treatments, the less likely it is that they’ll file a lawsuit should something go wrong.
To ensure your patients are actually absorbing the information you’re throwing at them, avoid asking yes and no questions. Instead, use the “teach back” method. This requires patients to explain the concept back to the doctor in their own words.
4. Be Prepared to Apologize
When mistakes are made, your hospital staff members need to be apologetic to patients and their families.
“Studies show that apologies to patients who experienced medical errors decreased the probability of legal action,” writes Elizabeth Kwo, MD. Patients who received a genuine apology that expressed both sympathy and acceptance of responsibility led to forgiveness and resulted in the patients looking more favorably on settlement offers.”
If you’re worried about apologies coming back to bite you, Kwo mentions that most states now have physician apology laws on the books that allow doctors to say sorry without fear of the apology being used against them in a malpractice lawsuit.
5. Obtain Adequate Insurance
Finally, make sure you have enough medical malpractice insurance to cover you in a situation where something does go wrong. Rates are extremely low right now, so you might as well add some policies for greater protection.
Take a Proactive Stance
A reactionary approach to medical malpractice will always put you on the losing end of a lawsuit or claim. The only way to stay above reproach is to develop a proactive strategy that prioritizes smart practices, patient health, and a system of checks and balances.