Telephone Communication for Doctors

Susan Shepard, MSN, RN, Director, Patient Safety Education.

When carelessly conducted, telephone communications can lead to diagnostic errors and misunderstandings that culminate in medical malpractice claims and lawsuits.

Telephone conversations may be inherently deceptive because reliable communication is incomplete without facial expressions and body language to clarify and qualify what the voice is expressing.

Once you offer dental advice on the phone, you can legally become the attending doctor of a patient you have never seen. The best way to protect yourself from such potential liability is to practice effective telephone communication:

  • Listen very carefully, and pursue questions relevant to the dental problem.
  • Avoid distractions, such as checking email or attending to other duties, when speaking with the patient.
  • Obtain as much information as possible about the patient’s current complaint as well as the dental and surgical history.
  • Prescribe or advise by phone only when you know the patient and his or her dental and surgical history.
  • Accept a third party’s description of a dental condition only when you have confidence in the third party’s competence to describe what he or she sees.
  • Ask the patient to repeat the instructions back to you to ensure his or her understanding.
  • Have a plan to deal with dental emergencies.
  • Be particularly careful that the pharmacist understands all dosages and instructions for drug prescriptions given by phone. Spell out the drug when names are similar, and use individual numbers for dosages, e.g., “five zero” for 50. Include the reason for the use of the drug. Insist that the pharmacist repeat the information back to you. Make sure the same is true of hospital nurses taking your orders.
  • Be especially careful if you take a call for another doctor. In several instances, covering doctors have been held completely responsible for damages resulting from a telephone misdiagnosis while the original doctor was exonerated.
  • Prescribe only the amount of patient medication required for the period you are covering for another doctor. Pain medications and narcotics should be refilled or ordered only in small amounts.
  • Document all phone calls to and from patients, and keep the patient’s record updated.
  • Provide the absent doctor with documentation of your coverage period.
  • Be sure to document any telephone conversations with nurses pertaining to a patient in the patient’s hospital medical record.

Following these telephone loss prevention measures will help you avoid giving inadequate information or experiencing a miscommunication:

  • Always see the patient yourself when in doubt.
  • Obtain the services of an interpreter if there is a language difficulty.
  • Repeat instructions you give on the phone and then ask that they be repeated back to you.
  • Allow the caller both the time and opportunity to ask questions.
  • Make prompt referrals, and follow up with the referred provider if the patient’s medical problem is outside your specialty.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and who is around you when using a cell phone to talk to a patient outside of the clinic.
  • Speak clearly and enunciate carefully.
  • Verify patient compliance in a follow-up contact to ensure continuity of care.
  • Be especially cautious when the caller is an unknown patient. This type of patient is best managed by you in person.
  • Remember that drowsiness, fatigue, or distraction on the part of either party is a giant step toward miscommunication.
  • Document, document, and document again.

Disagreements about what was said are invariably a major problem when cases are tried. It is of prime importance, therefore, to obtain all of the necessary information on the phone. If you still feel there is any area of ambiguity, we strongly advise that you see the patient. 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. Use standard language when at all possible.

The information you received, what you advised, and the orders you gave must be immediately recorded to avoid future discrepancies about what was said. This is especially important when the phone call occurs after office hours or on weekends. During office hours, take steps to resolve the caller’s questions and problems. The patient’s problem should be appropriately addressed, and the process should be documented. Office staff should tell the caller when the doctor is most likely to return his or her call and follow up to ensure that the caller’s questions and problems were resolved.


Effective communication is particularly important on the telephone. Doctors who use telephones carefully will reduce misunderstandings that can lead to legal action.

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 considering the circumstances of the individual situation and in accordance with the laws of the jurisdiction in which the care is rendered.

J10036 02/15