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Don’t Risk Not Planning for Risk


You think being a great doctor is enough to ensure you won’t get sued? Alas, we wish it were so. You need to take steps to protect yourself.

Take heed, good doctors, having world-class training and clinical skills is not always enough to fend off potential legal action. For today’s physicians, the threat of a malpractice suit is ever lurking on the horizon. Protect yourself from such legal entanglements by involving everyone in your practice. You’ll need effective risk-management strategies to deal with all those trigger points surrounding patient care.

Here’s what you can do to reduce your potential risk:

  • Document accurately and in real time - as you see the patients. Remember that old adage: “If it isn’t written, it didn’t happen.” You’ll be faced with this reality if you ever have to defend your records in court. It’s not just a matter of getting things documented; there’s also legibility, timeliness, and identifying the author. Ask for documentation guidelines from your malpractice carrier.

  • Be compliant. You understand HIPAA compliance, and require patients to fill out seemingly endless reams of paperwork. But are you neglecting basic privacy issues, such as creating a sound barrier so staff conversations and communication within the treatment room cannot be overheard and training staff members on release of information by fax or phone to unauthorized people?

  • Help your patients be compliant, too. Implement e-prescribing, not only to increase your efficiency, but also to better manage patient medications. Get follow-up appointments or repeat tests scheduled when the patient is still in the office. Institute a patient appointment reminder system and hold patients accountable. If the computer system cannot accommodate this, use tickler files. Of course, systems are only as good as the people using them. Consistency and accountability are critical to the credibility of any system.

  • Enjoy your patients more. You’ve got the clinical part down pat. Now make an effort to get to know your patients. Strive to treat the person, not just the condition. After all, patient satisfaction is largely based on how your patient feels during and after a physician encounter. Staff should follow your lead by introducing themselves to new patients - and let’s call them by name, please. Using your patient’s name frequently during an office visit will help him feel connected and important. After a visit, ask for feedback. An added bonus will be fewer patient phone calls that interrupt your day.

  • Be accountable. Risk management is best achieved by establishing standards, consistently applying them, and monitoring performance. Begin with the basics and develop standard protocols regarding patient care essentials for all areas, including rooming patients, clinical telephone calls, missed appointments, recording patient encounters, managing diagnostic studies, chart maintenance, release of medical information, informed consent, follow-up studies, and recall appointments.

Make sure these protocols are included in your risk management plan for the practice. This plan should become a tool for training new physicians and staff and holding everyone accountable. Common-sense risk management plays an important role in reducing risk exposure, so make it a priority in your office.

Judy Capko, based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., is a healthcare consultant with more than 20 years experience. She can be reached at judy@capko.com.

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Physicians Practice.

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