After-hours answering machines

Malpractice Consult

A You should try to arrange call coverage, if at all possible. You'll be better protected against malpractice claims than if you rely on an answering machine. If a patient can't reach you-or someone covering for you-to get advice about a medical condition you've been treating or about problems with a newly-prescribed medication, you could have a liability risk.

While an answering machine isn't as effective as an on-call arrangement with other physicians, such coverage may not be possible in some areas. If it isn't, as in your case, an answering machine is a reasonable option. If you're not on call, and don't have call coverage, an answering service won't solve your problem because there's no one to refer the calls to. (A future column will discuss the use of answering services.)

If you do decide to use an answering machine, consider the following precautions:

The author is a risk management and loss prevention consultant in Cloverdale, CA. He can be reached by e-mail at

. This department answers common professional liability questions. It isn't intended to provide specific legal advice. If you have a question, please submit it to Malpractice Consult, Medical Economics, 5 Paragon Drive, Montvale, NJ 07645-1742. You may also fax your question to 973-847-5390 or e-mail it to