Medical malpractice claims can arise in any type of health care setting. The purpose of this article is to discuss the risk of medical malpractice suits in the context of brief “med checks,” which are 15- to 20-minute follow-up appointments for psychiatric outpatient medication management. Similar issues arise in brief new patient and transfer visits.
Malpractice hinges on ‘reasonableness’
Malpractice is an allegation of professional negligence.1 More specifically, it is an allegation that a clinician violated an existing duty by deviating from the standard of care, and that deviation caused damages.2 Medical malpractice claims involve questions about whether there was a deviation from the standard of care (whether the clinician failed to exercise a reasonable degree of skill and care given the context of the situation) and whether there was causation (whether a deviation caused a patient’s damages).3 These are fact-based determinations. Thus, the legal resolution of a malpractice claim is based on the facts of each specific case.
The advisability of 15-minute med checks and the associated limitation on a clinician’s ability to provide talk therapy are beyond the scope of this article. What is clear, however, is that not all brief med check appointments are created equal. Their safety and efficacy are dictated by the milieu in which they exist.
Practically speaking, although many factors need to be considered, the standard of care in a medical malpractice lawsuit is based on reasonableness.4-6 One strategy to proactively manage your malpractice risk is to consider—either for your existing job or before accepting a new position—whether your agency’s setup for brief med checks will allow you to practice reasonably. This article provides information to help you answer this question and describes a hypothetical case vignette to illustrate how certain factors might help lower the chances of facing a malpractice suit.
In med check appointments for established patients, consider the patient population, the availability of pre- and postvisit support services, and contingency plans (Table).
Different patient populations require different levels of treatment. Consider, for example, a patient with anxiety and trauma who is actively engaged with a therapist who works at the same agency as their psychiatrist, where the medication management appointments are solely for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor refills. Compare that to a dual-diagnosis patient—with a psychotic and substance use disorder—who has had poor medication compliance and frequent rehospitalizations. The first patient is more likely to be reasonably managed in a 15-minute med check. The second patient would need significantly more pre- and postvisit support services. This consideration is relevant from a clinical perspective, and if a bad outcome occurs, from a malpractice perspective. Patient populations are not homogeneous; the reasonableness of a clinician’s actions during a brief med check visit depends on the specific patient.
Pre- and postvisit support services vary greatly from clinic to clinic. They range from clerical support (eg, calling a pharmacy to ensure that a patient’s medication is available for same-day pickup) to nursing support (eg, an injection nurse who is on site and can immediately provide a patient with a missed injection) to case manager support (eg, a case manager to facilitate coordination of care, such as by having a patient fill out record releases and then working to ensure that relevant hospital records are received prior to the next visit). The real-world availability of these services can determine the feasibility of safely conducting a 15-minute med check visit.
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