Clinicians who regularly order diagnostic tests for their patients may be at an increased risk for medical malpractice lawsuits due to communication breakdowns in how test results are conveyed, study findings indicate.

Between 1996 and 2003 malpractice payments based on diagnosis rose approximately 40%, Brian D. Gale, MD, MBA, and colleagues from the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., reported in the Journal of the American College of Radiology.

Looking at data from 1991 to 2010 in the National Practitioner Data Bank, the researchers determined the major cause of these malpractice cases included: failure of physicians and patients to receive test results, delays in reporting findings and lengthy turnaround time for receiving diagnostic test results.

Claims related to the three most common types of communication failures increased from $21.7 million to $91 million from 1991 to 2010. At the national level, claims payments increased an average of $4.7 million annually, linear regression analysis revealed.

During the same time period, communication failure awards accounted for an increasing proportion of the total malpractice awards for all providers – increasing by a factor of 1.7 from 1991 to 2009. 

These increases may be attributable several factors, including drastic growth in diagnostic testing capabilities outpacing notification reliability and increased patient expectations for better systems regarding medical test data notifications, the researchers speculated.

Hospitals and healthcare organizations need clear policies to define the responsibility of reporting and following up with patients, Gale and colleagues wrote. They suggested that the “advent of semiautomated critical test result management systems may improve notification reliability, improve workflow and patient safety, and, when necessary, provide legal documentation.”

Gale BD et al. J Am Coll Radiol. 2011;8:776-779.