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Anatomy of a malpractice suit


New Orleans -- By understanding the elements of a malpractice suit, a physician can guard against malpractice and also be better prepared in the event of a suit, according to Donald L. Levin, M.D., a private practitioner in Liverpool, N.Y.

Dr. Levin addressed attendees at this year's 63rd Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology here.

Malpractice elements

"There are four elements necessary for a patient to successfully pursue a malpractice suit," Dr. Levin explains.

He notes that:

The physician has legal duty owed to the patient. This duty is established whenever a hospital or health care provider undertakes care or treatment of a patient; The physician has to breach the duty--a breach of duty in medical malpractice refers to a failure of the healthcare provider to meet a relevant standard of care for the time and place of the alleged injury; the breach must cause harm or an injury--it must be established that the physician's negligence led to the stated injury; and Contributory negligence and damages incurred--in which the physician contacts the patient for follow-up repeatedly through calls and letters, and the patient does not return to the office.

Damages occurred is usually defined as the estimated monetary equivalent to compensate the injured person for the loss or injury sustained.

"For the patient to prevail in a medical malpractice case, all the above elements must be proven" he explains.

Records

Patient medical records are of critical importance from the start of the patient's case, according to Dr. Levin.

"They should be clear and precise," he says. "Physicians should not alter the medical records at any time."

Dr. Levin emphasizes that information that wasn't in the medical record should not be added, and nothing should be removed from the records.

This is why careful documentation is vital from the very beginning, he adds.

"The greatest malpractice risk for a dermatologist is always in flux," explains Dr. Levin. "The failure to diagnose melanoma is a big malpractice risk."

One of the warning signs of malpractice risk can be specific communication from the patient, the family of even an attorney.

The physician's medical liability insurance carrier generally will assign an attorney in the event of a malpractice suit. If preferred, the physician will choose his or her own legal assistance in some cases.

Surgeons who have set customs and procedures for their office can then refer to these procedure patterns if need be.

"It is important for a physician to know the procedures of the office so they can explain the set procedures for whatever is being discussed."

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