If a doctor is in practice long enough, he or she will most likely be named in a medical malpractice suit. Practitioners in certain high-risk specialties may be accused of wrongdoing several times over the course of their careers. The vast majority of malpractice suits are dismissed or settled out of court, and when payouts are made to claimants the amounts are usually covered by insurance. But the aggravation and stress associated with a legal case is no small matter, and being sued is obviously something that’s best avoided if at all possible.
As you read through this post, keep in mind that a patient can be subject to a medical error or poor clinical outcome and not even think of blaming their doctor-if, that is, they feel they’ve been treated with respect and compassion. Another patient who experiences a similar untoward event may end up filing a malpractice claim as a result if they feel they’ve been “dismissed” or received poor service. This is where medical office staff comes in. The little things that both front and back office staff members do (or don’t do) can make the difference between “forgive and forget” and “I’m calling my lawyer.” Consider the following ways to reduce the risk of having your practice dragged through court.
Be responsive to patients by communicating with them in a timely manner. No one wants to sit by their phone (even their cell phone) waiting for a physician, nurse or office staff member to get back to them about a prescription refill, appointment time, to schedule a diagnostic test, or with the results of a lab or radiology report. Remember, patients who are chronically irritated, frustrated and annoyed by the service they receive may be more apt to sue their doctors than those who are continually wowed by the responsiveness of the practice.
Don’t ignore patient complaints. If someone takes issue with how long they’ve been made to wait, over a billing error, about the fact that they’re not being communicated with, or any other matter regardless of how minor it may seem, take them seriously. Listen carefully, acknowledge the concern, take steps to rectify the situation, and keep the patient in the loop as to what’s being done to solve the problem. Unhappy patients often just want to be heard.
Be cognizant about working within the scope of what you are educated and trained to do. Medical assistants and front office staff alike accumulate a great deal of clinical knowledge over time, but casually or unintentionally dispensing medical advice to patients can create problems. Be careful not to accidently practice medicine by offering clinical advice that is beyond the scope of what you’ve been hired to do.
Thorough documentation in medical records is essential to good patient care, and also an important factor when it comes to staying out of legal hot water. Office staff can help ensure that patient records are complete by documenting missed and rescheduled appointments, prescription refills that are called in per a doctor’s order, and miscellaneous communications with patients.
Respect patient privacy. HIPAA regulations aside, it’s good business and good medicine to ensure that clinical information is safe within your office. Demonstrating this to patients can include simple actions such as keeping computer screens turned so that they cannot be seen by the public, turning paperwork face down when it’s on desks and countertops where patients stand or wait, using a low speaking voice when talking with patients, and being careful when using a patient’s name or discussing their care anywhere in the office or over the phone. Also, never reference patients on social media, even if your patient is an A-list celebrity.
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