In order to have a successful medical malpractice claim, an injured patient needs to show that a doctor-patient relationship existed with the doctor that is being sued. This means that the patient hired the doctor and the doctor agreed that she or he was hired. This agreement is voluntary. Once a doctor has begun seeing and treating a patient, it is easy to prove that there was a doctor-patient relationship. However, there can be questions about whether a doctor-patient relationship existed if there is a consulting physician who did not treat the patient directly. Additionally, the can be an assumed agreement under the law if no actual agreement exists, such as family members seeking treatment for an unconscious patient.
The encounters between a patient and their doctor are based on trust and give rise to a doctors’ ethical obligation to see to their patients’ welfare. When a doctor-patient relationship is strong, trust is enhanced and continuity of care is encouraged. This contributes to a patient’s health and well-being. However if the doctor patient relationship is weak, the patient’s care can be negatively impacted and can put a doctor at greater risk of being sued for medical malpractice.
Medical malpractice lawsuits seem to be the result of a failure of the doctor-patient relationship, especially if there is a lack of effective communication. Poor communication skills increase the likelihood that patients who experience adverse outcomes to their treatment will sue, even if an error did not occur.
Unfortunately, concerns about malpractice liability have caused an increasing number of doctors to see their patients as potential adversaries. Additionally, if a doctor has been sued and has adopted the perception of seeing their patients as potential adversaries, then they are more likely to practice defensive medicine, eroding their relationships with their patients further.
When a doctor-patient relationship has become so difficult that a doctor or patient finds it necessary to end the relationship the doctor needs to take steps that ensure continuity of care for the patient. A patient can terminate the doctor-patient relationship at any time, but the doctor has a duty to inform the patient that s/he needs to seek further medical care, if their condition necessitates it. When a doctor terminates the relationship, the doctor needs to provide the patient with enough time to find another doctor or make other arrangements.
Improving relationship skills between doctors and patients is important given the high rate of litigation that results from poor communication. Such changes may help to decrease the number of medical malpractice lawsuits.
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