Limit liability for hospital procedures

September 1, 2006

Malpractice Consult

Q. Whenever my patients are admitted to the hospital to undergo a procedure, I worry about my own liability. So many things can go wrong, some of which could create liability for me either as the admitting or referring doctor. Got any suggestions?

A. There's a lot you can do to protect a patient from medical errors whether you admit the patient yourself or a physician to whom you've referred him does, and there's also a lot you can do to protect yourself from liability.

With contentious patients-particularly ones who come armed with lots of ill-informed advice from friends, relatives, or the Internet-listen carefully to their concerns and questions regardless of what you think of them. Provide materials or suggest other sources of information that are both relevant and medically sound.

Tell patients what to expect from any scheduled tests. A patient may have read about new advances in high-tech diagnostic techniques, leading her to expect more than the tests can deliver. Explain that all tests have limitations, and that human error is always possible when interpreting the results of even the best diagnostic technology.

Before the procedure, tell the patient what to watch for, and when to speak up if she has questions or concerns. Explain the roles of the nurses and the various specialists who are members of the treatment team.

Try to involve the patient's family in the post-op period, particularly if the procedure is serious. They can be very helpful just by sitting with the patient and staying alert to her condition, particularly if there's a shortage of nurses. Family members can also offer moral support, doing small tasks like getting water, adjusting the bed, or asking for the nurse.

Follow up with the patient yourself after the procedure. Even if you're not the admitting physician, you can still stop by to check how things are going or to answer questions. You can also talk to the members of the treatment team and convey their comments and advice to the patient.

Before the patient is discharged, schedule a follow-up appointment to discuss the long-term prognosis. The patient will feel better if he knows the likely end-result, and if he knows that you'll be involved over the long run.

The author, who can be contacted at lj@bestweb.net
, is a healthcare attorney in Mt. Kisco, NY, specializing in risk management issues. 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 memalp@advanstar.com
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