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Solid doctor-patient relationships may minimize malpractice suits

Physicians in California looking to reduce or prevent medical liability claims may be able to do so by fostering strong relationships with patients. This advice is based on research involving communication differences between surgeons and doctors with malpractice histories and those without such backgrounds.

One study covering this topic found that primary care physicians without a history of malpractice suits took several steps to engage with patients. Such efforts included letting patients know what a visit would involve, discussing concerns, soliciting opinions, and verifying patients' understanding. They also spent more time with patients during visits. According to an analysis of more than 20,000-medical liability claims, communication failures were a factor in 30 percent of malpractice suits. With more than half of these cases, there were communication issues between healthcare providers and patients and/or families.

Communication problems were linked to a third of all malpractice litigation cases in another study. Specific issues included doctors appearing to be discourteous or inattentive. Some physicians also provided insufficient information. Furthermore, research suggests a positive rapport with patients that includes quality communication influences whether or not patients opt to file a malpractice claim. A review of patients' malpractice depositions showed that the physician-patient relationship influenced 70 percent of the decisions to pursue legal action. Additionally, provider-family communication was one of the reasons given by parents of infants that experienced injuries immediately before and after birth. Patients also tend to be less likely to take legal action with physicians they trust.

Courts typically place the responsibility on physicians when it comes to initiating, documenting, and facilitating discussions with patients about their condition, prognosis, and treatment options. When putting together a case, a medical malpractice lawyer may review previous patient complaints that resulted in litigation to determine if there's a pattern of communication failures. Documentation of patient visits is also typically reviewed to identify possible oversights.

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