If a patient or her attorney believes a physician is responsible for a bad outcome at an outpatient medical facility, the facility itself will be sued, not just the physician. Therefore, it is up to the facility to have established procedures and protocols in place to deter the risk of lawsuits. Here are five tips for outpatient medical facilities that may help reduce the risk of lawsuits.
#1. Good patient communication
Communication is the No. 1 issue in any medical setting – outpatient care is no exception. Within outpatient services, patients don’t typically have the same depth of relationship with the doctors as they do with their own primary physician. This often makes them more inclined to pursue legal action in the case of a bad outcome or adverse event. If facility physicians and staff take even a few minutes of extra time to answer all questions and address all concerns, patients and their families will walk away feeling as though they had all the information – even if a bad outcome occurred.
#2. Confirmation of informed consent
The patient is at the outpatient facility because of a medical problem – usually determined by his primary physician – who then referred him to the outpatient facility. It is the facility’s job to confirm that informed consent has occurred between the patient and physician, so policies must be in place to ensure this happens with each and every patient encounter. Patients must be informed of the details of the procedure, the risks and benefits and any alternative treatment options. A procedure should not be performed until informed consent has been confirmed. When patients or their families feel they were provided all available information, they are much less likely to pursue a lawsuit in the case of an adverse outcome.
#3. Proper documentation
Documentation can make or break a case when attorneys become involved. Be sure everything is documented, including all test results as well as the date, time and subject of all conversations with both the referring physician and patient. In the event of an adverse outcome where the court becomes involved, the ability to show all conversations is essential. For example, it can be invaluable to show that the referring physician was spoken to on a specific date and that the patient was given specific recommendations.
#4. Thorough and safe medical records
The outpatient setting leaves many opportunities for accidental breaches simply because so many patients are cycled through the facility on any given day. Printed medical records must be kept safe and strictly out of the public view – and that includes being locked away each night. It’s essential that facilities have protocols in place that diligently track the security of medical records at every step.
#5. Prompt diagnosis
Patients often don’t realize how long it may take for medical tests to return. Some lab tests can take days or weeks. Outpatient medical facilities must have an efficient procedure in place for obtaining results and delivering them to patients and the ordering physician in a timely manner. Let’s say a patient had an MRI because of an unidentified growth in breast tissue. If the MRI indicates suspicion for cancer, how does the facility ensure that test results aren’t getting lost in the shuffle? The cancer could spread and lead to a bad outcome. A system of checks and balances must be in place that helps the ordering physician see the results, and act quickly based on the findings. In an outpatient facility, all staff must be informed as to which test results need to be called in to the referring physician immediately.
Bottom Line – All of these reasons come back to the No. 1 issue: communication. For a busy outpatient facility, it can feel as though there simply isn’t enough time to talk to patients, but, from a risk management perspective, the importance cannot be stressed enough. It’s important to take the time to communicate every step of a patient’s care with her – to listen and answer her questions. Not only does this help to build trust, it can also minimize the risk of a lawsuit. Excellent communication between the provider and patient almost always creates a “win-win” situation.