Potential lawsuits are a reality that even the best physicians must accept. An American Medical Association (AMA) survey found that 7% of malpractice lawsuits go to trial, 88% of which are won by defendants. Overall, 34% of physicians faced legal action throughout their careers, according to the survey. By age 55, that statistic increased to nearly 1 out of 2 physicians, indicating that the duration of practice directly relates to the chances of getting sued. Although 68% of lawsuits are ultimately dropped, dismissed, or withdrawn, the financial toll of legal defense can be prohibitive.

Some lawsuits take physicians by surprise. A study published in Archives of Physical and Medical Rehabilitation found 11.5% of patients sued physicians due to personal injury or workers’ compensation. Common traits exhibited by patients who considered litigation include anger, mistrust, drug dependence, and a focus on compensation. A study published in Pain Medicine analyzed the same data and found that the inclination to sue a physician was higher among patients suffering from chronic pain than those with acute or no pain.

One crucial strategy to help avoid lawsuits is developing an open-minded, communicative, and trusting patient-physician relationship. Patients who feel that their physicians don’t actively listen to and consider their complaints are more likely to sue, as are patients who feel that their physicians do not devote adequate time to their appointments. When a patient feels dismissed and unheard, they are less likely to divulge pertinent personal information that might be key to accurate diagnoses and treatment. On the other hand, positive patient-physician relationships increase the likelihood of patients sticking to medication regimens and carrying out doctor recommendations like follow-up tests and procedures. Simply asking patients if they have any questions or if they need any clarification is a good way for physicians to foster an open, positive patient-physician relationship, thereby lowering the risk of legal action.

Open, positive inter-healthcare-provider relationships are also essential. Physicians who are too authoritarian and refuse to be questioned may make other healthcare providers feel uncomfortable about questioning the plan for a patient’s care. This lack of a collaborative protocol could lead to key details being overlooked—and, ultimately, a malpractice suit. Administrative protocols play a role in lawsuits as well. Receptionists and other staff members must be trained to understand what questions they are cleared to answer versus questions that should be passed on to physicians; otherwise, inaccurate information could result in patient harm and a lawsuit.

Another key strategy for avoiding lawsuits is to ensure accurate and comprehensive documentation of all patient visits, assessments, suggested diagnostic tests, referrals, and treatment plans using detailed notes; forming a clearly defined differential diagnosis; and taking all appropriate actions to conclude the final diagnosis. Furthermore, making sure that patients have followed up on referrals and procedures adds a layer of protection for physicians. Regarding referrals, make sure to get a report from the specialist and to no longer continue treating that particular problem when you see the patient, as continued treatment could result in malpractice liability. If the patient refuses to visit the specialist, provide written documentation as to why you feel the visit is necessary.