Your medical practice staff plays a key role in reducing the likelihood that your physicians will face a malpractice lawsuit. Has your practice done all it can to ensure its staff members are engaging with patients the right way?
Pamela Willis, patient safety and risk management account executive at medical malpractice insurance company The Doctors Company, shared key ways medical practice staff can help prevent malpractice lawsuits at the Medical Group Management Association's Annual Conference in San Diego. Her session, "Not 'Just' an Employee: How Office Staff Can Help Prevent Malpractice Lawsuits," was held on Monday, Oct. 7.
"We want the staff to realize that they have a big part in helping prevent malpractice suits," said Willis, noting that nearly half of all medical malpractice cases arise from care given in the outpatient or office setting. "They make the difference. They are the first face of the practice. They are often the face of the practice that the patient sees most often. They have the rapport with the patient before the patient meets the doctor."
For that reason, Willis said the way staff interacts with patients, from first impression to follow-up, is crucial.
Here are five of the ways she said staff can help reduce the likelihood patients will file a malpractice lawsuit:
1. Avoid yes or no questions. Studies have shown that by the time patients leave the practice after appointments they have forgotten the majority of what they were told during appointments (such as follow-up instructions, treatment guidelines, and so on).
To ensure patients retain as much information as possible, staff should use the "teach back" method, said Willis. When staff finishes explaining instructions to patients, they should ask the patient to repeat back the instructions in their own words so that the staffer can ensure he has explained the instructions appropriately. "Put the onus on yourself," said Willis. "It makes the patient more comfortable, it makes them feel they can ask questions and clarify what they need to know."
2. Provide written instructions. In addition to employing the teach back method, staff should provide written instructions to patients so that they have a resource to consult after leaving the practice, said Willis.
3. Don't rush for the patient's signature. Before asking patients to sign informed consent forms for procedures, staff should ensure patients have received critical information from the physician regarding the procedure, such as the risks and benefits, said Willis. "Lack of informed consent or lack of proper informed consent is something that gets tacked on to medical malpractice all the time."
4. Create a great first impression. The happier your patients are with your practice, said Willis, the less likely it is your patients will file a malpractice lawsuit. "Study after study has found a correlation between patient satisfaction and the filling of lawsuits." Since patients often receive their first impression of your practice through staff (via phone or in the practice) it's crucial for staff to provide great customer service from the get-go, said Willis. For that reason, she recommends observing staff in action to see if their attitude or approach needs correction. "See how patients are treated when they come into office, make sure they are greeted appropriately," she said.
5. Step up hospitality. Assign one staff member at your practice the task of "waiting room hospitality" each day, she said. This staffer should make sure the temperature is comfortable; make sure the room is clean, and so on. Also, ensure patients know you respect their time by asking a staffer to monitor wait times and keep patients informed when appointments are delayed, said Willis. "Be alert, pay attention, and keep them updated."