The way that we communicate has dramatically changed over the years. Even with the introduction of modern communication means, such as e-mail and text, a telephone call is still the most widely used communication tool. Telephone conversations may be inherently deceptive because they lack the facial expressions and body language that clarify and qualify what the voice is expressing.
When carelessly conducted, telephone communications can lead to diagnostic errors and misunderstanding that may culminate in medical malpractice claims and lawsuits. The best way to protect yourself from such potential liability is to practice effective telephone communication by following these general guidelines:
When you either will be away or covering for another physician, these additional guidelines may help avoid problems:
The information you receive, what you advise, and the orders you give must be immediately recorded because disagreements about what was said are invariably a major problem when cases are tried. This is especially important when a phone call occurs after office hours or on weekends. During office hours, office staff should tell the caller when the physician is most likely to return his or her call and follow up to ensure that the caller’s questions and problems were resolved and documented.
It is of prime importance, therefore, to obtain all of the necessary information on the phone. The critical point is that you must arrive at an accurate and totally reliable appraisal of the patient’s condition either while you are on the phone or within a few minutes thereafter. If you still feel there is any area of ambiguity, we strongly advise that you see the patient.
Effective telephone communication is particularly important for the prevention of future litigation. It is the first impression a patient has of the practice or of the staff. It often sets the standards that could potentially reduce misunderstanding that may lead to legal action.
By Mark Gorney, MD, FACS, Governor Emeritus (deceased), Susan Shepard, MSN, RN, Senior Director, Patient Safety and Risk Management Education, and Nicole Franklin, MS, CPHRM, Patient Safety Risk Manager.
The guidelines suggested here are not rules, do not constitute legal advice, and do not ensure a successful outcome. The ultimate decision regarding the appropriateness of any treatment must be made by each healthcare provider in light of all circumstances prevailing in the individual situation and in accordance with the laws of the jurisdiction in which the care is rendered.