When specialists fail to accurately communicate important patient information, it can have enormous repercussions on that patient’s health along with lasting legal consequences. According to the non-profit healthcare accreditation organization, Joint Commission, 70 percent of “adverse health outcomes” derive from failed physician communication. In an opinion piece published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology, radiologist Leonard Berlin examined how lack of specialist communication plays out in malpractice lawsuits and physician relationships.
Dr. Berlin describes a lawsuit in which a 53-year-old male patient alleged that the medical center and radiologist failed to effectively communicate suspicious colon findings to the patient’s urologist. The man had gone to the urologist for a routine pre-lithotripsy workup, which went smoothly, but he was never alerted to the colon findings. When the radiologist had written up the CT study, he had called the urologist to inform him about the abnormality, but no one picked up the phone, and he left a voicemail asking the urologist to call him back, which he never did. Nineteen months later, the man was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. The patient claimed that this communication breakdown constitutes a breach of standard care and a violation of American College of Radiology (ACR) communication parameter. In the end, the man received a $4.5 million settlement in order so that both parties could forego a public trial.
According to other researchers cited in Dr. Berlin’s report, 15 percent of physicians don’t review radiologists’ reports. Unpublished ACR data in 2013 shows that 23 percent of surveyed members reported being sued for “failing to communicate,” compared with 49 percent that claimed they had never been sued.
“Failure to directly communicate a significant unexpected finding to a referring physician that results in severe harm or death to a patient may not only violate the radiologist’s legal duty but, even more important, his or her ethical and moral duty as well,” wrote Dr. Berlin. “Win, lose, or agree to a settlement that precludes a jury verdict, a malpractice lawsuit terminates after a finite period and is eventually forgotten. However, a guilty conscience may linger forever, especially if a serious patient disability or death could have been avoided by a simple telephone call.”