Originally featured in August of 2014 on STL Health & Wellness and St. Louis Medical News.

It’s 2PM on a Tuesday and you’ve just finished seeing a patient.  As you head to your next appointment a member of your staff hands you a notice letter.  This letter indicates that a patient of yours has sought legal advice and his attorney is notifying you of the intent to bring suit.  Your mind is racing.  Which patient was he?  What was the diagnosis?  What tests were done?  What were his follow up appointments like?  Where is his file?  What are my next steps?  This could cost me my practice.  However, I have a patient right now and these questions can be answered later.

When a physician is faced with a medical malpractice claim the repercussions can be emotionally, physically, mentally, and financially depleting.  Being prepared for such an instance will not eliminate all of these factors.  But, there are steps one can take to ensure their own protection should such an event arise.

Upon the arrival of said letter, one should contact their medical malpractice insurance company and forward any documentation on hand.  It is natural to replay the surgery or visit in your head, but it is important not to discuss the potential claim with members of the staff or those that were present during the “situation.”  Shall a lawsuit come to fruition these conversations will most likely be recounted and typically reflect poorly upon the physician. In addition, it is imperative that the patient’s records are not modified and it will only hurt a doctor’s defense if this occurs.  This file should be kept in a safe spot and remain un-tampered.

A patient’s file, even more so the physician’s notes within this file, become incredibly vital when a potential claim arises.  Documentation can be overlooked, but its importance cannot be overstated in the context of a procedure that involves others.  Following a procedure or examination, immediately dictate notes on actions made, issues that occur, and anything observed.  These transcripts are far more accurate than attempting to recall a situation.  The statute of limitations is typically two years in most states.  Although, the discovery of the injury or if the patient was a minor can be a major dynamic in affecting the standard two year limitation.  Any confusion over a physician’s actions reflects poorly in a case.  Note taking can be tedious, but it can mean the difference between winning and losing a suit.

Should there be an occasion in which you feel that an error is being made, speak up.  Being silent will put you on the defensive later.  While an operating room may not be the most ideal place for such a discussion any reservations had during a procedure must be expressed.  Do not hesitate to appropriately resolve a possible issue right then and there.

Being prepared for a possible claim and taking the right steps prior will only reduce the chances of a negative outcome.  Documenting what you do and remaining pro-active will allow you to avoid the expense, the emotional drain, and the setback in your professional life.  Defending yourself can be grueling, but with the right tools the outcome can be favorable.

Lauren Sullivan is a Marketing Associate for Galen Insurance Company.  Galen provides medical malpractice insurance for physicians and ancillary.