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How your staff can help prevent costly malpractice lawsuits

Doctors aren’t the only ones who cause malpractice claims. Staff can cause them too by the way they treat the patients and by the way they do their jobs.

It’s not the clinical mishap that most often causes a patient to see a lawyer. Many patients sue because they are dissatisfied or because there is a lack of communication. To a great extent it is not the physicians but the staff who control these factors.

Every office should take time to evaluate what its malpractice risks are and how those risks can be eliminated. But don’t focus on the technicalities. Focus on how the staff members interact with patients and how well and accurately they do their jobs.

Go back to the basics

To protect the office against malpractice lawsuits, go back to basics.

Risk management has a lot to do with common sense. The patient’s attitude about the medical practice depends on how he or she is treated by the staff.

The greatest malpractice prevention is simply not losing the human touch. Staff courtesy and attention to details can take patient satisfaction to a new level and substantially protect the office against lawsuits.

I’m not the doctor, but…

Just as important as what the staff should do is what the staff should not do. They should not answer the patients’ clinical questions without being clinically trained and qualified to do so.

Draw up a script for clerical staff, particularly the receptionist, to follow when patients ask clinical questions. “That’s a medical question so let me refer you to our medical personnel,” is one way to put it.

Monitor the compliance. Have an outsider call in with a medical question and see if staff are following protocol. If they aren’t the office is at serious risk for a lawsuit.

Similarly, the clinical staff have to practice within the scope of their responsibilities, and those responsibilities need to be clearly spelled out in their job descriptions.

Moreover, physician extenders need to make it clear to patients that they are not physicians. They need to introduce themselves as physician assistants or nurse practitioners. If a patient addresses a physician extender as “doctor” the correction must be made immediately with a response such as “I am not the doctor.” Don’t mislead the patient.

Consent is not a job for staff

Another malpractice risk is to watch for informed consent, and there the danger is not what staff do but what staff should not be doing. They should not be the ones who are responsible for getting informed consent from patients. Informed consent is a process. It is not just a matter of getting the patient’s signature.

The signature alone won’t stand up in a lawsuit. What the office has to show is that it explained to the patient the treatment, the need for it and the risks and benefits involved so that the consent was a matter of shared decision making.

The discussion has to be done by the doctor. To put that responsibility on a staffer puts the physician and the practice at risk.

When a suit threatens: silence

What the staff say can even pose danger.

When a malpractice suit is threatened or actually occurs, staff have to understand that they cannot mention the matter outside the office.

Staff may not realize that when they talk about a case outside the office, what they say can become discoverable information that the opposing attorney can use against the office.

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