Good Communication Can Minimize Physician Liability

Thinking PhysicianEvery doctor wants to avoid physician liability. And, there are many things a doctor can do to minimize his or her risk, like document everything, practice medicine conservatively (or defensively), etc. I recently read a column in USA Today about how to avoid physician liability and it almost solely focused on doctor-patient communication. And, more specifically, on the use of apology. We’ve talked about this topic many times before and we here at think that it’s complicated.

The author cites the University of Michigan Health System and its decade-old policy to disclose errors, apologize and compensate injured patients when appropriate and if there is mutual agreement. Since the policy was implemented, medical malpractice claims have dropped 36% at the institution. Indeed impressive. Also mentioned by the author was the fact that apology laws now exist in 36 states. These laws typically protect physicians’ apologies from being used against them in court. Again this is good news. But, physicians often have to answer not only to themselves, but also to their institutions and physician liability insurance companies. And, as we have said before, we suggest that every physician ask their physician liability insurance company and their institutions how they want errors handled.

Not mentioned in the article, but we also think critically important to any discussion about physician liability, is the attitude of our litigious culture. The fact is, we live in a society that feels that someone should pay, literally, for every error that happens. Clearly, “To Err is Human,” is not the United States’ culture right now. And, related to this, the author does astutely observe that many patients often confuse a poor outcome with malpractice. It seems that we live in a culture where anything less than perfect is unacceptable and, again, someone should pay. Maybe poor outcomes should be aggressively explained and there should be a focus on patient education to explain these events pro-actively? Would that make a difference? Could those physician liability lawsuits be avoided?

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