Every year more than 400,000 serious injury cases are reported in the United States due to clinical malpractice, according to the Journal of Patient Safety. Nurses are an essential part of the health care system and patient support structure; however, given the occupational demands and possibility of errors in records or care methods, they are often subject to legal malpractice suits.

If you are a nurse in the United States, what can you do to help protect yourself against the risk of malpractice? We discuss seven things you need to know to avoid professional or personal liability.

1. Be Present to Your Patient

With hospital and private practice waiting rooms getting more packed, it can seem difficult to give every patient the individual attention that they need. But when patients are lined up, and nurses and health care professionals are attempting to expedite service, mistakes or omissions that may not normally occur can, exposing a nurse to a malpractice suit.

Despite pressures to see as many patients as possible, part of the clinical workflow of a nurse or a licensed vocational nurse is to determine how many patients can be scheduled, and how many can be seen. A symptom missed, or a question that should have been asked about allergies, lifestyle, or health history, can create a serious or even fatal health care error. Be present to each patient and foster a positive, long-term professional relationship with them.

2. Explain Consent and Health Information Exchange

While the benefits of electronic health information exchange are revolutionizing the quality of care that patients receive, sharing and accessing health records (however encrypted and safe the data may be) is still a bit unnerving for the average patient. While electronic health records are far more secure than the historical paper file method (and more accurate), when it comes to personal health conditions, lab results, or health concerns, people like to keep their information under wraps, and cyber theft of patient information is a problem, as are the liabilities for care organizations who access those records.

Even if an individual seems to understand the nature of giving consent for care providers to share electronic health records, it is important to have the patient review and formally sign consent to participate in the local health record exchange. Eventually, all Americans will have the ability to share their results, lifestyle, and health procedural information with care providers, regardless of the state they live in or where they travel to. For now, however, it’s important to carefully review the terms of electronic health records, including how they will be used and who can see them.

3. Engage in Additional Continuing Education Training

The college of nurses for each state provides a minimum number of continuing education training hours required by every nurse, every calendar year. The continuing competency requirement reflects the minimum amount of learning that a nurse should expect to complete in order to remain current with procedures and other changes to the profession.

However, to enhance performance, nurses are recommended to seek more than the basic annual requirement to further their skills, and also to help protect them against the liability of a malpractice suit. A nurse who has engaged in extensive annual continuing education and training is able to defend his or her expertise better in a malpractice suit.

4. Never Wait to Refer a Patient

Emergency room nurses experience this on a frequent basis. When someone appears to be having a mild emergency or uncomfortable symptom, it can be easy to misdiagnose the problem. However, any small delay in seeking a referral to a specialist, or a consultation with a doctor, can place nurses at risk for malpractice, particularly if a symptom was ignored (or misunderstood) and the condition or emergency escalated into a life-threatening circumstance.

5. Remember to Document Thoroughly

The human brain can process and remember from 10 terabytes to more than 100 terabytes of memory. However, when you mix the demand of emergency situations, multiple patients, and long continental shift work, it’s not hard to imagine missing a detail or two on your report.

For nurses, the file and procedural documentation offers an advantage. First, it assists doctors to help determine an accurate diagnosis, allowing them to create a treatment care plan. The second reason is to provide legal documentation regarding methods, observations, tests, and results in the event of a malpractice liability suit. Without the documentation, it can be hard to prove in court that all reasonable measures and investigations were conducted, which is why accurate reports and files are so important for medical professionals.

6. Avoid Talking Shop on Social

Social media is not the place for any medical professional to be sharing about their workplace, the nature of their work, or using patient names or details that are otherwise confidential. Sharing about your day is natural, but sharing health records, patient pictures (without their consent), or clinical observations publicly can land you in court.

7. Measure Twice, Dispense Once

Medications for patients in a hospital or long-term care facility can change on a daily basis. Anything can impact the accuracy of prescription medications, including mislabeled drugs, faulty intravenous equipment, and more. That is why it’s important to double check charts for changes and clarify when prescription medications do not align with other treatments. Nurses are the first line of defense to prevent drug interactions, and they should use extra precaution when dispensing medications.

While it is estimated that nursing malpractice suits account for only 2 to 4% of annual legal problems for hospitals and private clinics, recent shifts in malpractice law mean that patients can receive compensation from doctors and nurses involved in their treatment or care. When malpractice limits or caps have been reached in terms of the doctor’s medical coverage, patients may also be able to pursue compensation for damages through the nurse’s insurer.

Therefore, the best protection is consistent vigilance and adherence to care procedures on a daily basis, helping you avoid legal liability and malpractice suits.

Connie Jelliffe

Connie Jelliffe is a lawyer at Hancock Law Firm that offers legal services like estate planning, family law, business formation, civil litigation, and more. Connie is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and the Mississippi College School of Law.

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