Physicians: Be Aware of Flu Season Malpractice Risks

December 12, 2013

As peak flu season quickly approaches, so do potential malpractice pitfalls associated with it. Here's how to mitigate those risks.

Peak flu season is quickly approaching. Is your practice prepared to deal with it effectively? One area that's critical to consider as you prepare: malpractice risks that can arise during flu season.

While malpractice lawsuits associated with the flu are rare, ensuring that your practice is aware of the potential risks will help ensure it doesn't fall into the pitfalls.

Robin Diamond, an attorney and registered nurse who serves as the chief patient safety officer for The Doctors Company, recently told Physicians Practice that the malpractice insurer experienced very few lawsuits associated with the flu over a six-year period. Most of the cases, she said, involved patients with flu-like symptoms in addition to other comorbidities, such as heart disease or asthma.

"Their immune system could be compromised or easily compromised when they present flu-like symptoms," said Diamond. "Physicians should be sure to obtain an adequate history and physical when they are treating these patients. Whether it's a new patient visit or an existing patient, physicians need to make sure that the patient’s information is current because that can impact their diagnosis and treatment and ultimately how the patient responds to the flu virus."

What can complicate matters is that flu season occurs during the holidays, when emergency rooms and practices are often busier and when more individuals are visiting from out of town, said Diamond. 

"Maybe a physician is treating an out-of-town family member or a patient whom the physician has not determined has a chronic disease," she said. "In these cases, there should be a little bit more attention paid to the patient. If the symptoms continue to worsen, it may be a sign that the patient should be reevaluated to ensure the appropriate diagnosis is made and necessary treatment is provided. These actions may help to prevent a potential missed or failed diagnosis."

Here are some of Diamond's key recommendations for physicians to keep in mind during flu season:

• Pay particular attention to patients presenting flu-like symptoms that are very young, elderly, and/or have chronic conditions.

• Ensure the problem list, history, and physical are thorough and up-to-date.

• Ask key question such as: When did the symptoms begin? Have you had these symptoms before? Have you traveled out of town recently? Is anyone visiting you from out of the area?

• Document thoroughly. "We always recommend the physicians and staff use the patient’s own words when possible because that customizes the record and it also shows if the case goes to court that the patient was really listened to," said Diamond, adding that thorough documentation will help protect you should any type of malpractice lawsuit arise.

• Also document any phone calls the patient makes to your practice regarding his illness, and document any direction you provide him over the phone, she said. "Whether it's, 'Go to the ER,' [or] 'Come in and see me again,' documentation is key."