3 noteworthy drivers of lawsuits against physicians

Connected coverage — selected articles on trends, challenges and controversies in the changing world of medicine.

Posted Aug. 5, 2013

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Some improvement in the medical liability climate has occurred in recent years. For example, liability insurance premiums have declined overall, thanks in large part to state caps on noneconomic damages. Damage caps and other tort reforms operate in the realm of public policy, but liability exposure also is an intensely personal matter for physicians. They constantly need to be aware of ­— and take preventive measures against — the risks that might land them in court.

American Medical News extensively has covered trends on medical lawsuits against physicians. Recently, we covered two risks — diagnostic errors and missed follow-ups — that stand out because of how frequently they are cited in costly lawsuits. We also have reported on a rising liability risk for physicians — prescription drug overdoses.

Medical liability: Missed follow-ups a potent trigger of lawsuits

Some of the greatest legal threats to doctors occur when patients miss appointments or practices fail to follow up on care, legal experts say. A survey of 723 patient care sites released in May found that 53% of such sites said making referrals and follow-up appointments were their top risk-management problems. Changes in health care models are fueling more lawsuits related to follow-up failures. Doctors can help prevent litigation by taking steps such as identifying and correcting gaps in staff communication.

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Diagnostic errors are lead cause of medical liability payouts

A study found that errors in diagnosis are responsible for more medical liability payments than any other type of medical error. After adjusting for inflation, the average payout was $386,849, according to a study posted online in April in BMJ Quality & Safety. Recognizing the causes of diagnostic errors is one key to reversing this trend.

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Physician liability: When an overdose brings a lawsuit

Drug overdoses killed 38,329 Americans in 2010, the 11th straight year of increases in such deaths, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Due to the rise in deaths related to drug overdoses, more physicians are being held liable for negligence in their handling of patients on pain medications. But doctors can use screening tools to spot patients at risk of abusing prescription drugs, and lessen the likelihood of lawsuits with proper documentation and regular monitoring of these patients.

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