I recently got into a rather … shall we say “colorful” … discussion with another doctor about lawsuits. I’m involved in another one. This one is even more screwy than the one I wrote about before. But this lawsuit isn’t finished yet. I expect that it will be over with in the next few months, but I’ll have to wait and see about that.
The discussion centered around medical records, which were one of the issues in my lawsuit.
The other doctor believed that what people write in the chart plays a big part in whether a doctor is successfully sued. In other words, the doctor believed that medical providers largely have the ability to document themselves out of a lawsuit.
I, on the other hand, asserted that charting generally does more harm than good. Sure, a well documented chart may make a doctor look more thorough and conscientious, but in the end if a diagnosis is missed, experts and jurors will work backwards from the diagnosis to determine all of the things that a doctor should have done to arrive at the diagnosis. If it’s a difficult diagnosis, documentation *may* save you. But if it is a disease where a patient manifested a couple of symptoms – even if those symptoms were nonspecific – documentation won’t do much. Electronic charting also provides a LOT more information, so it gives plaintiff attorneys more opportunity to show inconsistencies within a patient’s complaints, review of systems, and physical examination. Create an inconsistency by checking the wrong box or accidentally clicking “yes” instead of “no” and you look like either a careless schlubb who couldn’t be bothered to do an accurate exam or you look like someone who’s documenting an exam you didn’t perform in order to bill more money.
Then I started thinking. You know where that leads.
Suppose that a patient came to the emergency department with chest pain. He has a couple of risk factors for heart disease. His chest pain wasn’t classic cardiac pain, but he had chest pain. His EKG didn’t show any acute changes, but sometimes they don’t when someone has angina. His blood tests were normal, but again, blood tests often are normal when someone has angina. The pain gets better, so the emergency physician sends the patient home with a diagnosis of “chest pain” and instructs the patient to follow up with his doctor. But the patient doesn’t live that long. He dies that night from a heart attack.
Of course there’s going to be a lawsuit because a patient died from a heart attack after going to the emergency department with chest pain. I’m not going to argue whether or not the physician should have been sued. I didn’t give enough information in this example for anyone to make that determination.
My question is this: Given this scenario, is there anything about the chest pain patient’s history or physical exam that the physician could write in the chart to lessen the likelihood that he would be sued? If you were jurors, what types of things would sway your opinion (if anything) and make you decide that the doctor shouldn’t be liable for missing a heart attack in a patient complaining of chest pain? If the medical professionals were acting as expert witnesses, what documentation (if any) would make it more likely for you to conclude that the doctor complied with the standard of care?
I’ll let you know my thoughts once I read some comments.