Keep your Web site risk-free

October 5, 2007

Malpractice Consult

Key Points

A practice website can greatly enhance your ability to communicate with patients and keep them informed. As you build or update your site, however, keep these elements in mind:

Disclaimer. Be sure to include a disclaimer indicating that the information on your website is intended to be general and educational in nature, and is not specific medical advice. Here's an example: "The material provided on this website is for informative purposes only. If you need specific medical advice, please contact the office for an appointment."

Confidentiality. One way to guard patient privacy and comply with HIPAA standards is to assign each patent a password and have messages encrypted (your website designer can tell you how to do that). If you'll be responding to patients' queries and sending information via the website, first ask patients whether others in the household-or, worse, someone at their office-will have access to their e-mail.

Emergencies. Your website should contain a statement that the site shouldn't be used for emergencies. Provide an emergency phone number if you have a good coverage system in place. Or direct patients to call 911 or go to the closest ED.

Communicating with patients. If your website is interactive, you can allow patients to use it to make appointments, renew prescriptions, or send an e-mail for routine matters. Never try to diagnose and treat without examining the patient. It's okay to send appointment reminders via the Web, as well as notices of missed appointments, labs, X-rays, and/or consults. And you can encourage-and respond to-questions that occur to patients after appointments, since you've already conducted an examination. Document all correspondence in an EHR or paper chart, so it will be available for review at the patient's next visit-and in case it's ever needed in a legal proceeding.

Guarantees. Think of your website as an e-patient brochure. If you make promises you can't keep, you could face liability for violation of consumer protection laws, breach of contract, and malpractice. Overly rosy guarantees-for instance, "no waiting time" or "best results in the county"-can become evidence in a lawsuit.

Patient education. Your website can be an effective means of educating patients about their diagnosis, medications, and treatments. And you can use it to post answers to commonly asked questions from patients and visitors to the site; since this is general information, it shouldn't create a new duty. One more caveat: If you provide links to articles you think your patients will find helpful, make sure you've read these articles yourself. Anything that conveys poor or inaccurate information can increase your potential liability.

Ophthalmologist Frank J. Weinstock, a risk management expert, assisted in the preparation of this column. He is located in Canton, OH, and can be reached at fjstock@aol.com
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Lee Johnson, who can be contacted at lj@bestweb.net
, is a healthcare attorney in Mt. Kisco, NY, specializing in risk management issues.

This department deals with questions on common professional liability issues. We cannot, however, offer specific legal advice. If you have a general question or a topic you'd like to see covered here, please send it to Malpractice Consult, Medical Economics, 123 Tice Blvd., Woodcliff Lake, NJ 07677-7664. You may also fax your question to us at 201-690-5420 or e-mail it to memalp@advanstar.com
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