Why Hospitalists Remain Outside Malpractice Insurers’ High-Risk Categories, For Now

Ten years ago, the national headlines on malpractice insurance were staggering. Media reports catalogued OB-GYNs who proclaimed they were shutting down their private practices in the face of runaway premiums. Surgeons and other proceduralists decried payments tied to lawsuits they’d argue were arbitrary and capricious. And the American Medical Association (AMA) made announcement after announcement about states being in a “malpractice crisis.”

In recent years, premiums have actually dropped and stabilized at levels that most physicians agree are manageable for bottom lines. But, in that time, there has been scant discussion about hospital medicine’s relationship with malpractice. It’s not because the issue isn’t omnipresent for all healthcare practitioners, including the relatively nascent specialty that is HM.

Practice management experts say anecdotally that delayed diagnosis of, or treatment for, a spinal epidural abscess (SEA) is likely to get more than a few hospitalists sued. And, the proliferation of co-management of other specialties—particularly those with higher risk of incidence and higher premiums than internal medicine—open up hospitalists to further liability.

The issue is that at less than 20 years as a specialty, HM is in its infancy when it comes to its interaction with malpractice premiums. Health insurance companies and trade groups that track the insurance industry are just beginning to have enough data on claims, premiums, and payouts to make recommendations on risk factors, risk mitigation, and potential trends.

Tips for Hospitalists

Hospitalists aren’t taught much about medical liability insurance in medical school or during residency, so it’s not surprising that strategies to reduce liability risks may not be well known. Tips include the following:

  • Clarify to the patient and colleagues the role and scope of care to be provided. When patients feel like they understand what is happening, they are more satisfied. When specialists discuss ahead of time their roles on a case, there is less chance for confusion.
  • Be aware of when the greatest risks occur. Handoffs are a vulnerable time, whether it’s department to department or discharge to a primary care physician. Establish a system that ensures follow-up protocols.
  • Use standardized methods with other providers to avoid miscommunication. Checklists can be helpful to make sure “basic yet vital” information is always collected.

Still, even in a landscape of limited information, there are a few rules of thumb hospitalist group leaders should live by when it comes to managing exposure to malpractice cases, according to interviews with a half dozen healthcare professionals:

  • Know how your coverage works. Is there “tail coverage” that ensures you have protection for incidents that happened at an institution where you no longer practice? Even though hospital-employed physicians rarely have rate discussions directly (the hospital typically covers premiums as part of the compensation package), take the time to learn the basic details.
  • Be diligent in documentation. Note concerns in charts when appropriate, and stand up for your point of view. There’s a fine line between picking fights with other physicians involved in a patient’s care and making your concerns known, but don’t be afraid to put your clinical view on the record.
  • Avoid the practice of “defensive medicine.” Ordering tests and procedures that aren’t clinically necessary might seem like it can serve as a protection from later lawsuits, but it adds to healthcare costs and is just not the right thing to do, says hospitalist Allen Kachalia, MD, JD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who has studied the phenomenon (see “Culture Shift Necessary to Defeat “Defensive” Medicine,” on p. 38).
  • Recognize the risks associated with co-management. Caring for neurology, cardiology, and other subspecialty patients is a revenue boost for HM groups, but when some of those complex cases have adverse events, the hospitalist who interacted with the patient daily could be included in a lawsuit.
  • Focus on communication skills. An analysis of claims data by The Doctors Company (TDC) (www.thedoctors.com), a medical malpractice insurance company exclusively endorsed by SHM, reports that the second most common factor contributing to patient injury by hospitalists is “communication breakdown among healthcare professionals.”
  • Manage workloads to avoid burnout. Don’t take on too many patients at the expense of being involved in hospital committees or quality initiatives.

To be sure, many of the same tenets of being a productive hospitalist with high patient satisfaction scores—maintain manageable censuses; focus on patient centeredness; and use checklists, technology, and regimented protocols to reduce adverse events—translate very well to being a lower-risk hospitalist in relation to malpractice cases.

About Richard Quinn

Richard Quinn is an award-winning journalist with 15 years’ experience. He has worked at the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and currently is managing editor for a leading commercial real estate publication. His freelance work has appeared in The Jewish State, The Hospitalist, The Rheumatologist, ACEP Now, and ENT Today. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and three cats.

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