Blog | Thursday, November 5, 2009

Which patients sue for malpractice?

There are a lot of myths out there about which patients are most likely to sue a doctor for malpractice. Many doctors think it is "poor patients on welfare." They would be wrong. Evidence shows that low income patients on Medicaid are actually less likely to sue than others. But there are some patients and situations that should raise a red flag for physicians that they could bring a lawsuit.

--Angry patients: A patient who is upset about the doctor-patient relationship, either because something didn't work out or they perceived a lack of caring, is more likely to sue the doctor. Plaintiff attorneys say that the majority of their calls come from patients who had poor rapport with their physicians. What works in a medical error? An explanation of what went wrong and, if appropriate, an apology!
--Money Issues: Now that more patients are paying out of pocket costs, if they feel overcharged they become less tolerant of errors. If patients know the approximate costs up front, they aren't surprised and outraged when that big bill arrives. We all know, however, how hard it is to find out anything about costs in advance. Big problem!
--Doctors Dissing Others: So many lawsuits have been filed because of one doctor or nurse making disparaging remarks about another; "How did such a thing happen to you?" It's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback.
--Lousy Service: Bad service goes along with poor doctor-patient rapport. It is hard for someone to feel respected and cared for, if they get bad service or the rooms are dirty or the phone call isn't returned. If a mistake happens, the doctor must be available to discuss it. An absent doctor or poor service turns patients and family members into "angry patients" (see number 1).

Medical mistakes happen because the human body is complex, treatments are complex and there are no guarantees in life. Most patients don't sue their doctors when a bad outcome occurs. The experts in risk warn us that the relationship is the most important prevention for lawsuits, followed by meticulous documentation in the medical record.

Toni Brayer, FACP, is an ACP Internist editorial board member who blogs at EverythingHealth, designed to address the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st Century.