It doesn’t matter whether you were in the wrong or not; all it takes is one disgruntled patient, and your entire life’s work can suddenly be compromised. According to the De Rebus, there has been a substantial increase in the amount and value of medical negligence claims in South Africa.

Patrick van den Heever, an advocate of the Cape Bar and Director at The South African Medico-Legal Association, says that the reason for the increase could be due to changes in the Road Accident Fund legislation which may have encouraged attorneys to explore different types of personal injury litigation, like medical malpractice, as a financially lucrative solution.

It seems that a technique attorneys may be using, could be to purposefully target the public, encouraging them to seek legal assistance if they have suffered adverse consequences as a result of substandard medical care.

To boot, patients who could previously not have afforded to sue medical practices, are now assisted by the provisions of the Contingency Fees Act 66 of 1997, which allows a risk-free ‘no win no fee’ basis, which would of course, increase the amount of medical practices being sued.

On top of all this, we now have patients as consumers in the CPA, and this poses even more risk…it’s no wonder one of the biggest concerns of doctors is the fear of being sued…

The following tips may come in handy to minimise the risk of being sued due to communication oversights and misunderstandings:

1. Be Courteous

Demonstrating common courtesy and thoughtfulness can prevent many conflicts. People who have a good relationship with their physician, are not likely to sue if something goes wrong.

Empower staff to show courtesy too so that patients have a pleasant overall experience.

Not only does this help minimise the risk of being sued, but just makes good business sense: when patients enjoy the experience of their visit to your practice, they will want to return, and that should always be your goal.

2. Prep Properly

While physicians have a lot on their plates, taking the time to review charts before the appointment, may save your practice! In addition, a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system for patients will prove very helpful.

Keeping a record on family members, pets, hobbies, or other areas of interest, will do wonders to build a positive relationship… imagine how impressed patients will be if you were to ask them at their next appointment whether Fluffy’s broken leg has healed, or whether Tilly the grandchild enjoyed her matric farewell…

3. Be cognizant of the EHR

EHRs generally contain a record of times, showing when info was reviewed, and for how long. Do not rush test result review time, because this forms part of the medical record and if it shows a rushed review, it could spell disaster.

4. Take time to follow up

Develop a streamlined system to make sure your medical practice conducts follow-ups with regards to missed appointments and tests, and after appointments where necessary. Again, this helps develop a positive relationship with patients, and you are less likely to be sued. Create a documented system that can track each patient’s chart.

5. Hone in on your communication skills

You may be an exceptional doctor, but if you battle to communicate procedures, treatment or difficult news to your patient, you are likely to face more courtrooms than you care to.

Communication is vital not only for the doctor-patient relationship, but many medical malpractice suits may have been avoided had communication been effective.

Take the time to make sure your patient understands the diagnosis, treatment, and medication plans. Double check their understanding by requesting them to explain it back to you.

6. Be a good listener

Not many people will hang back if you ask them things, so ask away. People love talking about themselves and showing interest in their lives will contribute towards a strong relationship.

Implement a suggestion box, e-mail feedback address, and/or satisfaction survey and then assign someone the responsibility of implementing improvements based on patient feedback.

7. Keep informed

Although the majority of physicians keep updated with their latest CME specialty, it’s a good idea to know what’s happening with medical news and advancements. This will help you provide the best and latest options to patients, and as a result, reinforce their trust in you.

8. Put yourself in their shoes

When a patient has an appointment, they want to feel as if they are important to you. Keeping their needs at the forefront will always enable you to give them what they want and need.

If they call you, take the call. If they leave a message, phone them back. Your patients put a huge amount of trust in you, and as their doctor, you have the power to soothe their concerns.