As a healthcare professional, it is important to be aware of the different types of professional liability risks that you may encounter. Allegations of inadequate patient care represents a critical issue you may face during the course of your career. From data privacy issues to allegations of unprofessional conduct, there are a variety of potential complaints healthcare providers may face and defending yourself against a professional liability lawsuit can be costly.
Understanding the risk exposures that healthcare professionals may face can help you learn to provide quality patient care, and protect yourself in the event of a potential claim.
Legal Risks in Healthcare
Healthcare professionals practicing in a variety of specialties and levels of experience may face lawsuits. These actual legal case studies provide a sample.
Lack of Documentation and Failure to Recognize a Medical Emergency
This case involves a physical therapy practice. It resulted in legal action against the treating physical therapist (PT). The PT employee at the practice was cited in the lawsuit for various missteps in treatment. In addition, the owner of the physical therapy practice was also named in the lawsuit for failing to educate the employee and ensure that the employee was appropriately qualified.
After a fall, a woman went to the emergency department. She was diagnosed with a sprain and referred to an orthopedic practitioner. The practitioner gave her a controlled ankle movement (CAM) boot and told her not to put weight on the ankle. The patient was further prescribed physical therapy and pain medication.
At the beginning of her physical therapy treatment, the patient complained of pain in her right calf, which she attributed to discomfort from the CAM boot. During her intake, the patient also reported that she had smoked a pack-a-day for the past 30 years and was also taking oral contraceptives. The treating PT examined the patient’s calf and concluded that it did not exhibit clinical signs of a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). The PT also documented in the patient healthcare information record that the patient had scheduled an upcoming cruise and hoped to be ambulatory at that time. However, the PT failed to document the patient’s reported calf pain, or her assessment of the calf, in the healthcare information record.
In the second physical therapy session, the patient exhibited concerning symptoms, including shortness of breath after walking a short distance. The PT explained to the patient that these symptoms were concerning and advised the patient to see a physician prior to the cruise. However, there was no record of the recommendation or the patient’s response in the patient’s healthcare information record. Two days later, the patient was found deceased. Her cause of death was identified as an “acute pulmonary thromboembolism” with DVT of the right leg.
The patient’s son brought the lawsuit against the treating PT and physical therapy practice owner (malpractice cases in healthcare can also come from surviving family members). An important lesson derived from this lawsuit demonstrates the importance of maintaining comprehensive documentation in patient healthcare information records, as well as the need to follow up with professional referrals/recommendations. Read the full case details for the expert witnesses’ findings and how the case was resolved.
Failure to Refer Patient to a Physician, and Inflating Patient’s Expectations Through False Advertising and Marketing
This case involves a pharmacy professional who advertised himself as an “expert in prescribing pharmaceuticals” and his pharmacy business as “promising to provide the highest quality of patient care with 100 percent satisfaction”. The patient went to a pharmacy for what appeared to be a sore or bite on his leg. The area was blackish and painful, with redness surrounding the area. The pharmacist inspected the patient’s leg and concluded that the site was the result of a spider bite. He prescribed and dispensed two different topical medications and informed the patient verbally as to their use. The patient later asserted that the pharmacist never told him to follow up with a physician.
The patient used the medication as advised and assumed he would feel better. However, his condition worsened, and he ultimately sought care in the emergency department (ED). The ED physician informed him that he should have been seen by a physician for his leg and that one of the ointments had made his condition worse. The patient was diagnosed with community-acquired necrotizing Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) and was then hospitalized for 28 days. His treatment required surgeries, skin grafts, and intravenous antibiotics. Permanent scarring and disability resulted.
The patient, who did not have health insurance coverage, brought a lawsuit against the pharmacist to claim damages for medical bills, credit card debt, and lost wages incurred due to the injury. Such cases show the risks of deviating from the standard of care, and of using superlatives in advertising that exaggerate treatment claims. Read the full case details to find out what the expert witnesses concluded, and how the case was resolved.
Failure to Properly Monitor and Supervise Employee Services
The defendant in the case was a licensed clinical mental health counselor and art therapist. They were employed by a university and also owned a private psychotherapy practice. They also provided clinical supervision to Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs) alongside their work.
A counselor whom the defendant was supervising developed an inappropriate personal relationship with the patient being treated. The defendant became aware of the situation when meeting with the treating counselor in a supervisory visit. The defendant suggested that the treating counselor prepare a written contract to establish the boundaries of the patient-counselor relationship and advised the treating counselor to terminate the relationship and refer the client elsewhere for care.
The defendant counselor never followed-up on the contract, and the treating counselor never provided the defendant counselor with a signed contract. Instead, the patient ultimately terminated the professional and personal relationship with the treating counselor. The patient then sought treatment elsewhere, and the new counselor advised the patient to report this unethical treatment and unprofessional conduct to the relevant state licensure board.
In this case, the defendant counselor had no personal contact with the plaintiff patient. However, by neglecting supervisory duties, the defendant counselor became the subject of a lawsuit. This case demonstrates that healthcare providers can be held liable for the actions of their supervisees, even if they are the non-treating practitioner. Read the full case details, including risk management comments, the total assessed value of the claim, and what was ultimately paid on behalf of the insured defendant counselor.
How to Help Protect Yourself as a Healthcare Professional
As the above descriptions of legal cases in healthcare demonstrates, any healthcare professional – from counselors to pharmacists to physical therapists – can face a lawsuit in their careers and the reasons and allegations related to the legal actions vary.
How can you help protect yourself and (if you’re a business owner) your practice? Adhering to the practice standards of medical care in your profession is critical. Among other strategies, you should also ensure that your facilities, tools, and technology are current. If you own a practice, employee credentials should be checked in accordance with background information requirements in order to ensure that they are qualified to deliver the quality of care your patients deserve.
Finally, professional liability insurance provides coverage to defend you and cover judgments in the event that a malpractice claim arises, according to the terms and conditions of the policy. The extent of coverage depends upon the type of policy written.
Healthcare practice business owners will further benefit from a business owner’s policy (BOP) and workers’ compensation coverage. Note that some states also require workers’ compensation coverage for businesses with more than a certain number of employees.
Healthcare Providers Service Organization (HPSO) offers various insurance packages for individual healthcare practitioners
and business owners
. Get coverage to bring you added peace of mind.
Get a quote.