Patient safety and telephone medicine : some lessons from closed claim case review

J Gen Intern Med. 2008 May;23(5):517-22. doi: 10.1007/s11606-007-0491-y. Epub 2008 Jan 29.


Objectives: The telephone can facilitate medical care but also result in adverse outcomes leading to telephone-related malpractice suits. Analyzing claims might identify errors amenable to prevention. The objective of the study was to describe medical errors involving the telephone in patient-clinician encounters that significantly impacted medical care and medico-legal outcomes.

Design: The design of the study was a descriptive, retrospective case review of telephone-related closed malpractice claims that included depositions, expert witness testimony, medical records, allegations, injuries, and outcomes.

Patients/participants: Forty defendants from 32 cases coded specifically as telephone related by a major provider of malpractice insurance. Leading specialists sued: Internists, pediatricians, and obstetricians.

Measurements and main results: Cases were reviewed by a physician experienced in telephone medicine and independently checked by a risk management nurse specialist and discussed by 2 additional risk management analysts before arriving at full agreement. Twenty-four (60%) cases were settled or awarded to the plaintiff. The most common allegation was failed diagnosis (68%), most common injury was death (44%), and most common setting was general medicine ambulatory practice. Leading errors were documentation (88%) and faulty triage (84%). The average indemnity was $518,932, with a total indemnity of $12,454,375.

Conclusions: Telephone-related claims were costly; injuries were catastrophic. Poor documentation and faulty triage were major factors influencing care and legal outcome. Telephone errors may represent the tip of the iceberg in patient safety in ambulatory practice; however, these preliminary results need to be confirmed in a larger sample of cases.

MeSH terms

  • Case Management / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Communication Barriers
  • Diagnostic Errors / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Humans
  • Liability, Legal
  • Malpractice*
  • Practice Management, Medical*
  • Professional-Patient Relations
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Telemedicine*
  • Telephone*
  • Triage / methods*
  • United States