So far The Doctors Company hasn’t seen a significant number of lawsuits against hospitalists—but this could increase as the subspecialty grows, Diamond says. The closest example she knows of is a pending case in which a hospitalist is being sued for advice he gave in a consult in an emergency department.
Two things concern Diamond most about curbside consults. The first is that because there is no documentation in a curbside consult, the physician giving advice cannot prove later what was said. Insurers worry that because there is no documentation of curbside consults it can be one physician’s word against the other’s if the case goes to court. There can be disagreements about what was said, when, and the advice given—and no way to prove who is right, she says.
Her second area of concern is when the conversation goes from general to specific. A physician is easier to defend if it can be proved that the question asked was general and didn’t have a specific application or sharing of clinical expertise. If a specific patient and a specific history is discussed, courts could establish that this constituted a formal consultation and established a patient-physician relationship. They could also establish that the consulting physician relied on the recommendation, which harmed the patient, Diamond says.
Despite the dangers, are hospitalists likely to stop doing curbside consultations? Even the critics answer with a resounding “no.” They say such consults are a fact of life.
“Curbsides are a part of our professional community of care,” Dr. Zwillich says. “It’s good to ask advice of other hospitalists. The danger comes when a curbside is used as a substitute for a needed full consultation.”
Dr. Nagamine thinks curbside consultations are a good way for hospitalists to continue their medical education. “In the hospital setting, many knowledgeable hospitalists are nearby, and you can learn a lot from them. I don’t think that’s bad or wrong,” she says. “The biggest problem we have is not asking for help when you’re not sure. I’m all for making it easy for hospitalists to ask for advice when they are not sure. But I’m in favor of full consultations when appropriate.”
If hospitalists are going to participate in curbside consults they can make them safer by following this advice: Tread carefully, keep it general, think before you speak, and consider documenting what you say. And never hesitate to ask to see the patient.
Keep the curbside consultation general and brief: Curbside consultations may be safer when they are more general and used for the physician’s general education, experts agree. It’s when the discussion gets complex or about a specific patient that it’s time to think before you speak and be cautious.
Diamond says it is probably safe to say to another physician: “This is what I just saw. Have you ever seen it before?” But once the question goes from there to asking the physician what he or she did in such a case, “That’s when you’ve got to say, ‘Wait a minute, this is becoming so complex that it would be better if we did a formal consult.’ ”
Consider the risk of being wrong: “You have to ask yourself what is the downside—or the risk—of the question you’re asking,” Dr. Nagamine says. “If you know you’re going to order some tests and want to know which one to do first, this is far less risky than [deciding] if … we admit someone to the hospital or send him home.” In the first case there’s probably not much risk because you can order other tests if the first ones don’t give you the results you need. But in the second, if you send someone home and you are wrong, you can cause harm, she explains.