Physicians who regularly order diagnostic tests for their patients may be at an increased risk of medical malpractice suits, according to a recent study. The risk for lawsuits comes not from the diagnostic tests, however, but rather from communication breakdowns in how the results for those tests are being conveyed.

Between 1996 and 2003, malpractice payments based on diagnosis rose approximately 40%. A major cause of these malpractice cases was communication failures, for example, failure of physicians and patients to receive results of tests; delays in reporting findings; and lengthy turnaround time to receiving results of diagnostic tests.

Researchers at the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn looked at the correlation between communication failures and malpractice claims awards. The study, published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology, examined data from the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) from 1991 to 2010.

Continue Reading

Claims related to the three most common types of communication failures increased from $21.7 million in 1991 to $91 million in 2010. Analysis of the NPDB claims data from 1991 to 2009 suggested that claims payments increased at the national level by an average of $4.7 million annually. Over the same period, NPDB data showed that communication failure awards accounted for an increasing proportion of the total malpractice awards for all providers—the proportion increased by a factor of 1.7 from 1991 to 2009.

The authors speculated that this may be because patients have an expectation of more reliable notification of medical test data, or that the drastic growth in diagnostic testing has outpaced notification reliability. Lead author Brian D. Gale, MD, MBA, Assistant Professor of Radiology at SUNY Downstate, and his co-authors recommend that hospitals and health care organizations need clear policies to define the responsibility of reporting and following up with patients.

In addition, the authors suggest that the “advent of semiautomated critical test result management systems may improve notification reliability, improve workflow and patient safety, and, when necessary, provide legal documentation.”