Pay attention to patient complaints – they often lead to lawsuits

You may not think that you can do anything to help your practice avoid a malpractice claim, but you are wrong. According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a small number of doctors receive most of the malpractice claims and costs. And you can usually tell when a doctor is at risk for suits by looking at the patients’ complaints beforehand.

The researchers looked at 645 doctors in a large medical group, over 2,546 physician-years of care between January 1992 and March 1998. They recorded all patient complaints.

They found a significant relationship between complaints and lawsuits. The more patients a physician saw, the higher the risk of receiving both complaints and suits. But even when they factored out that risk, they found that a higher amount of complaints equaled a higher amount of suits and payouts.

Factors including the amount of complaints could predict 84 percent of "risk management file openings," 83 percent of payouts, 81 percent of lawsuits, and 87 percent of multiple lawsuits.

So the next time a patient comes to you with a problem, make sure to give it your full attention. Even if the problem seems trivial, addressing it now could save your practice from huge expense and embarrassment later.

If you’re not familiar with your office’s policies for handling patients’ complaints, ask your office manager or a veteran staff member to explain these to you. Request a written copy of the procedures, and keep it handy.

And if you bring complaints to the attention of your physician or office manager, make sure to point them to this study. Everybody in your practice needs to be aware of the huge risks that complaints bring with them. And since you’re on the front line of patient service, you’re the canary in the coal mine of patient dissatisfaction.

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