What Causes Patients To Sue Their Doctors? (And If You're A Doctor, What Can You Do To Avoid It?)

Why do some doctors seem to get sued more than others? If you're a physician, you should know that the best thing that you can do to avoid being sued is to make sure that you communicate well with your patients. Here's why communication is so important and what you can do to lessen your chances of getting sued.

What causes patients to sue doctors?

The number one predictor of whether or not you'll get sued is whether or not you've been sued before. In a study spanning a 13 year period, 59% of the doctors in the study never had a lawsuit filed against them. Only around 13% had a successful lawsuit filed against them and only 7% had multiple lawsuits.

Some doctors are clearly getting sued more than others. Before you assume that it's just that they must have inadequate skills, consider this: 32% of respondents to at least one study of people who filed malpractice claims for neonatal injuries said that they filed suit because their doctor didn't talk openly with them. Another 13% felt that their doctors didn't listen. Another study showed that 70% of patients that sued their doctors cited one of four communication problems:

  • the patient felt deserted by the doctor

  • the patient felt that his or her views were devalued

  • the doctor delivered information poorly

  • the doctor didn't seem to understand the patient's point of view

Clearly, communication is key. Without good communication, a patient can get angry and feel very disconnected from you. A patient that feels angry and disconnected from you is more likely to sue you. If you consistently fail to communicate well with your patients, the statistics say that you'll be that doctor that gets sued more than others, regardless of your skill level.

What can doctors do to prevent it?

While it's impossible to negate every risk factor that can lead to a lawsuit, there are some specific things that you can do to reduce your risks when it comes to communication:

  • Let your patient do some of the talking -- after you do your diagnosing. Try to get your patient to express his or her feelings about the treatment that you are advocating and make sure that they understand why you are recommending a specific course of action.

  • Listen to patient demands. This doesn't mean that you have to acquiesce to a mother's demands for antibiotics for her child if you think that the child has a virus instead of an infection, but you can stop and empathize with her concerns. Explain your justification for not taking the course of action your patient prefers. Be careful that you approach the issue as a chance to educate your patient.

  • Use your sense of humor. Laughter may not really be the best form of medicine, but studies have shown that doctors that use humor with their patients are also less likely to be sued.

What if you don't know how you are being perceived? You can easily find out by going directly to the people that count the most: your patients. Consider anonymous follow-up surveys that are mailed out randomly or monthly to patients who have been in for a visit. Alternately, do a little sleuthing online. Various websites allow you to check the way that patients have rated you and your practice over time, including your communication skills.

What happens if you do your best and you end up in a lawsuit anyhow? Talk to an attorney like R.J. Marzella & Associates, P.C. and find out your options.