Physicians who have a congenial bedside manner overall and who apologize to patients and their families when treatments or procedures go wrong minimize their own and their hospitals' medical malpractice risk, said medical and legal experts speaking at a recent conference.
A combination of statutory trends, study results and anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that hospitals should encourage both employed and independently contracted physicians to maximize their interpersonal and communications skills with patients, the experts said.
Their comments came from a panel at the Professional Liability Underwriting Society's international conference last month in Boston.
The issue is important for hospitals because of the vicarious liability risk created for them by independently contracted physicians as well as by employed physicians, said lawyer Peter Mosseau, a partner at Nelson Kinder Mosseau & Saturley.
He said hospitals often cannot limit their liability through independent contractor agreements with physicians.
Courts have imposed liability on hospitals for the actions of independently contracted physicians under a legal theory based on the fact that hospital advertising and representations on patient forms and hospital signs lead patients and their families to believe independent physicians are employed by the hospital.
And even when a hospital has adequately notified patients that those physicians are not hospital employees, it cannot escape liability in certain situations, Mosseau said.
But just as physicians can draw hospitals into malpractice cases, they can keep themselves and hospitals out of litigation through some behavioral changes, said hospital defense lawyer Steve Day Jr., a partner at Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin.
One of the most important changes physicians can make is to apologize to patients and their families for bad medical outcomes, Day said. Several hospitals that have implemented apology programs report reduced malpractice claim frequency, he noted.
Issuing apologies alone, though, is not enough to reduce claims, said Craig Samitt, M.D., and chief operating officer of Fallon Clinic, Worcester, Mass., and president of the clinic's captive insurance company. Samitt said that a physician who has not established a cordial relationship with a patient and then apologizes after a poor medical outcome might make such a situation "even worse."
Patients may view the apologizing physician as insincere, he said.
In a 14-question patient-satisfaction survey that Fallon routinely conducts, physicians who are sued more often than other doctors receive lower marks than their peers on only two questions, Samitt said.
Those questions asked patients to rate how well their physicians listened to them and respected them.
This article was first published in Modern Healthcare?s sister publication Business Insurance and was written by Dave Lenckus.