Recently I served as an expert witness in two cases; in each a hospitalist was being sued. While I can’t share details of these confidential cases, I can share my insights using a couple of hypothetical cases that illustrate the key lessons I learned:
- A 75-year-old woman was admitted by orthopedics after a fall requiring hip fracture repair. A hospitalist automatically saw her per the standing agreement. The hospitalist adjusted her diabetes regimen and held her aspirin because of bleeding. On the evening prior to discharge she developed right lower-extremity pain. The on-call orthopedist ordered a lower-extremity ultrasound from home.
The patient felt better the next morning and was discharged with hospitalist recommendations to increase her basal insulin, restart her aspirin, and follow up with her primary care provider (PCP). Three days later the patient presented in respiratory extremis and died in the emergency department. Post-mortem chart review noted a sonographic venous thrombosis in the right femoral vein that went unnoticed during her hospital stay.
- A 58-year-old woman was admitted after an uncomplicated appendectomy. On post-op day two, the surgeon asked the hospitalist to see the patient for a depressed mood. The hospitalist recommended starting an antidepressant and following up with her PCP after discharge. She also noted that the patient had right lower-extremity pain and swelling and recommended an ultrasound for workup of a deep venous thrombosis (DVT). The hospitalist did not see the patient again, and the ultrasound was not completed. Two days after discharge, the patient died at home after complaining of chest pain. Post-mortem autopsy revealed massive pulmonary embolism.
Two difficult cases, indeed. And I learned plenty from them:
Lesson one: Most lawsuits do not stem from deficiencies of medical knowledge.
In both cases, the hospitalists’ clinical reasoning was sound. In the first he was unaware of the patient’s overnight symptoms, which were not documented in the chart because the patient was not seen by the on-call orthopedist—a major systems error and lack of professionalism. This was compounded by a system that did not alert providers that an ultrasound was ordered or read as abnormal.
In the second case, the hospitalist got it right and made the correct recommendation—but the surgeon didn’t follow through.
Lesson two: Clarify your role—consultant or co-manager.
The differences between consultant and co-manager are subtle but crucial.
A consult is a request to answer a specific question: “Is this patient depressed, and how would you manage this problem?” This results in a detailed, focused appraisal of that issue, culminating in a note listing recommendations for further evaluation and management. It is the primary team’s responsibility to follow up on recommendations as they deem appropriate.
With this decision-making capacity, the primary team accepts near-full clinical and medical legal responsibility. As long as the consultant does due diligence and makes sound recommendations, it is unlikely he/she will be successfully sued for a bad outcome if the recommendations are not followed.
However, the hospitalist movement has changed this landscape considerably. We often function in a co-management model with our consulting colleagues, each of us caring for the issues within our respective scope of expertise.
This paradigm demands a level of responsibility sharing and communication that differs significantly from the traditional consultative model.