Doctors can be sued for negligence, as can you as a health & wellness professional. How can you prevent it?

Communication is the Key

Numerous studies1 over the years have shown that doctors are more likely to be sued due to miscommunication or failed communication. Yes, they made an error in medical judgment as well, but a majority of the patients who sued were upset because their doctors failed to communicate, misled them, or ignored them.

What is Negligence?

When a client or patient sues a practitioner in any field, the client/patient must show the practitioner had a duty, breached that duty, and caused harm. In other words: duty + breach + causation = harm. Before clients/patients take that step, they will likely communicate with the practitioner in some way. First, let’s consider how you can prevent a complaint.

Preventing a Complaint

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Doctors who spend more time educating their patients, use humor, and ask for patients’ opinions are less likely to be sued. They don’t rush their patients. Bottom line, doctors who are likeable are less likely to be sued.

How can you be more likeable in your own practice?

  1. Be present. Make eye contact with your client/patient and shake hands. Don’t rush through the appointment. Find out what your client/patient needs.
  2. Educate. This tip works both ways. Allow your clients/patients to educate you about their needs. What’s going on? What has helped in the past? What do they think will be helpful today? As you discuss how you can help, educate your client/patient about the potential benefits and contraindications. Obtain informed consent for any service/treatment.
  3. Follow up. If this was a first-time client/patient, or they’re recovering from injury or illness, or you tried a new type of treatment/modality, follow up with an email or phone call. Your client/patient will feel cared for, you can learn about the effectiveness of the session, and you can educate them about further follow-up care. 

How Do You Respond to a Complaint?

If the worst does happen and you receive a complaint, here are some options. When the first way you learn of a complaint is through the disciplinary process of your profession’s board or through notice of a lawsuit, the first thing you’ll want to do is contact your professional liability insurer and your attorney. (And yes, carrying professional liability insurance is highly recommended.) Your insurer or your attorney will advise you how to proceed from there.

If the complaint is communicated to you directly by the client/patient, consider talking about what happened and how you can rectify the situation. Remember, open communication is the key. Also, report the complaint to your professional liability insurer even if the client/patient is satisfied with your proposed resolution. Every situation is unique, so consult a professional and use your best judgment when confronted with a complaint.

What are your questions or tips on complaints?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

1See Aaron E. Carroll, “To Be Sued Less, Doctors Should Consider Talking to Patients More,” New York Times (June 1, 2015), available at https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/02/upshot/to-be-sued-less-doctors-should-talk-to-patients-more.html (last visited Feb. 8, 2018).