Medical Malpractice Discussion with Experts: Hayes V. Whiteside, M.D., Chief Medical Officer and Senior Vice President of Risk Management for ProAssurance

Hayes V. Whiteside, M.D., is Chief Medical Officer and Senior Vice President of Risk Management for ProAssurance. Prior to joining ProAssurance in 2004, he practiced Urology for 18 years in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He received his undergraduate degree from Louisiana State University and his medical degree from Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans. Dr. Whiteside completed a general surgery internship and residency at LSU in New Orleans and a urology residency at LSU as well. He was Associate Professor of Surgery at The University of Alabama College of Community Health Sciences Division of Surgery in Tuscaloosa. He also served as Chairman of the Tuscaloosa County Board of Health from 2002-2006. He remains active in numerous medical societies and professional organizations.

For more information on Dr. Whiteside and ProAssurance, visit www.proassurance.com.

Q. Nebraska passed “I’m Sorry” legislation a few years ago. The intent of the legislation is to provide physicians the opportunity to apologize to a patient for a negative result without having such apology used against the physician in a medical malpractice lawsuit. Do you think that physicians should take advantage of such legislation? If so, in what instances? What is the danger of writing such a letter?

Dr. Whiteside: One of the most challenging situations a physician faces is delivering bad news to patients and families.  To facilitate the process of delivering such news, many states, like Nebraska, have enacted “apology laws” to prevent expressions of sympathy from being introduced as evidence of wrongdoing in professional liability lawsuits. At the outset, physicians who face such a situation should contact their professional liability carrier and the facility’s risk manager to assist in disclosure and communication with the patient and family. If at all possible, physicians should have these conversations in-person, so that the patient and family can see the physician’s concern, ask questions, and explore options. When disclosing unexpected outcomes and delivering expressions of sympathy, whether in-person or in a letter, it is important to acknowledge that the event occurred.  Depending on the situation, an apology that the event happened may be desirable or appropriate, but physicians should refrain from accepting blame for the event. The conversation, including the names and relationships of those present, should be documented in the patient’s medical record.  Physicians know it is impossible to prepare for every difficult situation that may arise; however, general preparation for disclosure of adverse events is good risk management, just like a fire drill.  Furthermore, development and maintenance of an open and strong patient relationship may prevent deterioration of the relationship should an unexpected outcome occur.  

Q. If you were to review the office procedures for a medical practice, what three or four procedures would you want to see (1) in writing, and (2) actively followed?

Dr. Whiteside: As the face of medicine changes (practice trends, technological advancements, etc.), static written procedures are not always adequate.  Naturally, easy-to-understand-and-implement processes that are well-known to the office staff are more likely to be followed.  An important process is tracking and following up on diagnostic tests/imaging studies, lab results, and referrals. Follow-up with patients who have missed or cancelled appointments is a key process for physician practices.  Another important process is telephone triage, recognition of urgent/emergent complaints and provision of physician-approved responses to common questions or problems by the office staff.  As important as the actual processes is the staff’s knowledge and understanding of their important role in patient safety and risk management.

Q. It is often said that the physician/patient relationship is an important aspect of a successful treatment relationship. Do you agree with that statement? If yes, what would be important in the physician/patient relationship?

Dr. Whiteside: Without a doubt. Physicians and other medical professionals can tell you that patients who perceive that they have a good relationship with their physicians are less likely to sue, even in the face of an adverse outcome.  Effective risk management begins as soon as a professional relationship is established with a patient, and effective communication is the cornerstone of a successful physician/patient relationship, with understanding, compliance, and satisfaction ultimately depending on both verbal and written communication. Good communication improves actual care and the patient’s perception of the care that he or she receives: two key ingredients to deterring lawsuits. Patient education is important, as well, because patients who don’t understand what medicine can and cannot do for them may mistake a known complication, adverse event, or unanticipated outcome as “bad medicine.” Educating patients doesn’t have to be technical or lengthy, but efforts should be as thorough as possible. It’s a good idea to keep a patient’s fears in mind – we recommend physicians check a patient’s understanding by asking him or her to repeat any key points, as well as asking the patient to relay any questions or concerns. We also recommend encouraging the patient to take an active role in his or her course of treatment. Patient non-compliance, which often leads to adverse events, is frequently associated with a patient’s failure to understand his or her condition, the rationale for treatment, and the important role he or she play in achieving positive outcomes.

Q. What factors are particularly important in terms of quality documentation?

Dr. Whiteside:  The primary function of a medical record is to provide a complete and accurate description of a patient’s medical history, medical conditions, diagnoses, care and treatment, and response to such care and treatment. Proper documentation within the medical record can support a physician’s defense and illustrate his or her commitment to the patient’s care.  Whether to a jury, third party payor, or another physician, proper documentation gives physicians credit for the good care they are providing.  We recommend documentation be legible, timely, chronological, accurate, thorough, and objective. Documentation should include tests ordered, past medical histories, allergies, and medication lists. Discussions with patients, such as informed consent discussions or discussions regarding a patient’s noncompliance, should be documented and include the names and relationships of anyone present. Physicians or staff should document if printed educational materials are provided or if the patient watches an online program or video.  In order not to taint the documentation of the good care being provided, physicians should not alter the medical record.  Corrections and addenda should be transparent, and a physician’s professional liability carrier may be of assistance before documentation mistakes are made.  Again, physicians should receive credit for the good care they are providing, and proper documentation is the means to that end. 

Q. If you were to create a preventive law checklist for medical practices, what would be three or four of the most important things on that checklist?

Dr. Whiteside: The benefits of preventive practices include quality patient care, promotion of patient safety, open and strong patient relationships, compliance with laws and regulations, and protection from liability. A preventive checklist to achieve those benefits might incorporate the following:

  1. Physician-approved telephone triage protocols for both office and after-hours calls that address what complaints require immediate attention, frequently asked questions and common problems, and parameters to determine if an office visit or other action is necessary.
  2. Documentation of all patient telephone calls, during and after regular office hours, which includes the date/time of the call, subjective information provided by the patient/family, advice or instructions given, and prescriptions phoned in to a pharmacy (with medication name, dosage, frequency, amount, any refills, and the pharmacy utilized).
  3. A system to track missed or cancelled appointments, referrals and consultations, and test and lab results, including documentation of all steps and efforts to reschedule patients or obtain information.
  4. Documentation of informed consent discussions, which includes the physician’s discussion regarding the risks, benefits, and consequences of non-treatment; the patient’s agreement with the plan; and any state law documentation requirements.

© 2009 Parsonage Vandenack Williams LLC

  For more information, contact info@pvwlaw.com

MEDICAL MALPRACTICE DISCUSSION WITH EXPERTS: WILLIAM LAMSON, MEDICAL MALPRACTICE DEFENSE ATTORNEY

Bill Lamson is a partner of Lamson, Dugan and Murray and Chairman of the Firm’s Litigation Department.  Bill is well recognized and highly sought in the area of medical malpractice defense. 

Mr. Lamson is a 1969 graduate of the University of Nebraska. He was inducted into the American College of Trial Lawyers in 1985 and the International Society of Barristers 1996. He is also a member of the Nebraska Defense Lawyers Association, and a member of the Defense Research Institute.

For more information on Bill Lamson and the well respected law firm of Lamson, Dugan and Murray, see www.ldmlaw.com

 Below are Mr. Lamson’s responses to our series of questions on medical malpractice:

Q.  Nebraska passed “I’m sorry” legislation a few years ago.  The intention of the legislation is to provide physicians the opportunity to apologize to a patient for a negative result without having such apology used against the physician in a medical malpractice lawsuit.  Do you think that physicians should take advantage of such legislation?  If so, in what instances? What is the danger of writing such a letter?   

 Mr. Lamson’s response:  States that have passed “I’m sorry” statutes have differed in the scope of protection provided.  The Nebraska statute, like most others, is narrowly drafted to protect only statements of sympathy or compassion, but not statements of fault in relation to an unanticipated outcome of medical care. 

Expressions of apology and sympathy are important in building relationships of trust with patients and families.  On the other hand, expressions of fault or other explanations regarding an unanticipated outcome often require speculation on the part of the physician and will be admissible as evidence should the physician be sued and the case proceed to trial.  Physicians should therefore provide apologies with caution, understanding the limitations of the protection afforded by the “I’m sorry” statute.  

 The discussion of legal issues related to this legislation is not to be confused with requirements set forth in physicians’ codes of ethics, such as the AMA Code of Medical Ethics, which should always be observed.     

Q. If you were to review the office procedures for a medical practice, what three or four procedures would you want to see (1) in writing; and (2) actively followed?

Mr. Lamson’s response:

Responding to patient phone calls and documentation thereof

 Follow-up on outside lab/test results

 Updating patient’s recent history, especially re: other physicians seen, medications prescribed by other physicians

 Documentation of Patient Education/Informed Consent

 Q.  It is often said that the physician/patient relationship is an important aspect of a successful treatment relationship.  Do you agree with that statement? If yes, what would be important in the physician/patient relationship?

Mr. Lamson’s response:

Yes.

 Patients who sue are often angry about perceived attitudes on the part of the physician.  They describe a lack of caring, or indifference, and lack of listening to the concerns of the patient or family.  This is often a misperception of which the physician is unaware.  Taking steps to avoid this will benefit the patient and lessen the risk of litigation for the physician. 

  Trust is important in a physician/patient relationship.  Trust can be established by communicating with the patient on a level that he/she understands and allowing the patient to be involved to a reasonable extent in medical decision-making.  It is also established by speaking frankly with the patient while remaining nonjudgmental regarding personal medical issues.  Taking time to listen to patient concerns and to answer questions goes far in demonstrating an attitude of caring.  All of these actions are likely to assist in the establishment of a successful physician/patient relationship.        

Q.  What factors are particularly important in terms of quality documentation?

Mr. Lamson’s response:

Documentation entries should be dated and timed, legible, and factual.  They should provide enough information to tell a story that allows the physician or other healthcare provider to understand what has been going on with the patient.  Interdisciplinary communications should be documented, as should communications with consulting physicians and with the patient or family.  Patient education/informed consent should always be documented in the medical record, the specificity of which depends on the circumstances.  Errors should be corrected by lining through; never obliterate or attempt to change a medical record after-the-fact.  With electronic charting, avoid the temptation to simply “choose from the menu.”  Individualize by entering annotations as necessary.   

Q. If you were to create a preventive law checklist for medical practices, what would be three or four of the most important things on that checklist?

 Mr. Lamson’s response:

Perform an appropriate history/physical examination before prescribing any medication or treatment for a patient.

 Formulate a (differential) diagnosis when a patient is seen for a medical complaint.

 Follow-up after ordering any medication or treatment, or additional testing.

 Communicate with the patient/family regarding diagnosis, treatment, and recommendations; allow time for patient questions and input; ensure patient understanding.

 Document all of the above.

© 2009 Parsonage Vandenack Williams LLC

  For more information, contact info@pvwlaw.com

MEDICAL MALPRACTICE EXPERT DISCUSSIONS

PVWLaw has asked a variety of medical malpractice experts to respond to a series of questions on medical malpractice.  The questions focus on what physicians can do proactively to prevent medical malpractice lawsuits as well as on some aspects of tort reform.

© 2009 Parsonage Vandenack Williams LLC

  For more information, contact info@pvwlaw.com

Good Doctors Get Sued for Medical Malpractice: Physician Asset Protection Planning As a Way of Life

Medical Malpractice suits result in significant distress.  We preach regularly about all of the actions that physicians should take to avoid getting sued but the fact is “good doctors” get sued.  In addition to giving consideration to state laws, structure of practice, patient safety, practice standards (all covered in other blog topics), a physician should make asset protection planning a way of life from the day the physician commences practice.

We preach regularly about asset protection planning but given that we have seen a rise in lawsuits on questionable claims, we are going to revisit both strategies to avoid malpractice claims and steps that all physicians should be taking on a regular basis to protect themselves in the event the physician or a partner is sued. 

We will cover a variety of topics in detail in other blogs or on our website but here is a quick list in the area of asset protection planning.

*Put your estate plan in order before your first day of practice.  Good estate planners develop a plan that considers where you are now (which might be a lot of student loan debt) to where you are going.. You will have a retirement plan, a house and assets to protect. Start right away.  If you wait until a claim gets made some day, in most states, you are too late.   If you are many years into practice without a solid estate plan, do one now.  Include asset protection planning discussions as part of your plan.

*Know your state’s laws regarding malpractice insurance.  Understand your exposure.  Understand your exposure for the acts of others.  Get a personal attorney who reports to you and who has expertise in health care law and personal planning.

*Understand your malpractice insurance.  Go over the policy line by line and be clear about what is covered and where coverage ends.

*Take your personal insurance seriously.  Consider all types of potential liability.  Professional liability is not the only risk to your assets.   Consider the employee who gets in an automobile accident while driving to the hospital and kills a carload of engineers.

*If you choose private practice, spend time with a knowledgeable lawyer discussing the benefits of professional corporations as compared to the other options.  Serious consideration should be given to maximum liability protection.  Tax benefits can be achieved in most entity forms in the current climate.

*Asset protection planning has become a term of art for those of us who do health care law and estate planning.  There are numerous ways to achieve asset protection.  All of them require that asset protection planning be a way of life.  Again, planning after a claim is made is too late.

More detailed articles will be available here and at our website over the next few months.

© 2009 Parsonage Vandenack Williams LLC

  For more information, contact info@pvwlaw.com