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Lopez: A bitter pill – medical malpractice liability for new resident physicians

attorney Martin J Lopez III

Martin J. Lopez III is a litigation attorney who represents individuals and both privately-held and public companies in a wide range of civil litigation matters.

Medical school residency match day. It’s a chaotic, stressful revelation at which fourth-year medical students find out where they will spend the next few years of their lives as residents – newly minted physicians becoming experts in their respective fields.

While becoming a resident physician is undoubtedly an exciting next step in the process, it inherently comes with daunting new realities – a plethora of health care regulatory compliance issues, constantly developing reimbursement requirements, and medical malpractice liability. This short article focuses on minimizing the risk of negligence-based malpractice lawsuits.

While no practicing physician is immune from being sued, common-sense measures have proven effective in avoiding malpractice claims. And, although a resident physician’s liability is generally covered by the residency program, there remains ample reason to mitigate liability risk – notably, to avoid the stress, time, and hassle that comes with litigation.

Most obviously, physicians should provide the best medical care to their patients they possibly can. Lawsuits for medical malpractice involve determining whether the physician has met the standard of care owed to the patient; if she provided the best care she could have, she has positioned herself well from the outset.

Essential to providing a high level of care to the patient is communication about that care to the patient. Medical malpractice lawsuits often involve allegations of poor communication that may be rooted in a failure to convey respect, inadequate listening skills, and the use of technical medical jargon rather than patient-friendly language.

In a fast-paced environment with numerous patients to attend to, it’s understandably easy to use verbal medical shortcuts for efficiency’s sake; however, using patient-friendly language creates a stronger connection with patients, makes for well-informed patients, and may also manage patient expectations about treatment, diagnosis, and prognosis.

When a patient is dissatisfied, the physician should carefully listen and try to understand the basis for the concern or frustration and engage in meaningful dialogue about the issue. By making this concerted effort to proactively communicate and resolve issues, physicians affirm their commitments both to the patients and to a quality practice where people are treated with respect.

Another important aspect of mitigating liability risk is thorough detailed documentation in the medical record. Careful documentation is the foundation for quality and coordinated patient care, defending malpractice claims, and even for reimbursement issues by government programs – such as Medicare and Medicaid – and commercial insurers.

Proper documentation should include, but certainly isn’t limited to: details of discussions with patients, the physician’s thought and decision-making processes, results of laboratory tests and other ancillary services, proposed courses of treatment (including the impact of doing nothing), the bases for any physician recommendations, and communication of alternatives to the patient. In so carefully documenting, the physician establishes medical necessity for her services and creates admissible evidence in the event litigation arises out of the treatment.

While it may create extra work for physicians, taking the steps outlined in this article offers the benefits of more meaningful communication with patients, increases patient satisfaction, facilitates coordinated care with other providers on the patient’s behalf, and reduces the risk of malpractice lawsuit liability. Establishing these habits early in a medical career will undoubtedly offer great long-term rewards.

Martin J. Lopez III is a litigation attorney with the Oklahoma City law firm of Phillips Murrah.