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Mishaps & Malpractice: How New Nurses Can Protect Themselves

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By Amanda Sounart, associate editor

A growing number of nurses across the U.S. are finding themselves forced out of the sick room and into the courtroom as the prevalence of malpractice suits against nurses steadily increases. While lawsuits against nurses are still somewhat rare, nurses are more frequently being brought into civil cases, either as an individual or in conjunction with a suit against a facility.

“We look at it from two perspectives, the severity and the frequency,” said David Griffiths, vice president of marketing for the Nurses Service Organization (NSO), the country’s largest provider of professional liability insurance coverage for nurses. “The severity is the total dollar outlay. The frequency is the number of lawsuits. We have seen a continual increase in both the severity and the frequency in the past ten years. Since 1997, the number of suits and the money awarded has grown dramatically.”

As the nursing shortage continues to put a strain on the nation’s healthcare system, nurses within the hospitals and medical facilities are finding themselves overworked and suffering from stress. They are often forced to fill in the gaps caused by understaffed departments and may be taking on too many responsibilities out of sheer necessity. Studies have shown that fatigue and high stress conditions can lead to human error, which impact patient outcomes. Combined with the growing trend toward civil suits, nurses are an easy target for litigation.

“Certainly we feel it is a more litigious society than ever before,” added Griffiths. “Even though there are a lot of safety initiatives being put in place, some individuals still have the mindset that if you don’t like how something comes out, you see a lawyer. When you look at malpractice, it doesn’t even have to be a patient that files the suit, you can literally file suit on the perception of injury. A suit can be filed by the patient’s estate or a family member.”

Malpractice suits against an entire facility can encompass any of the nurses who had part in an incident. While state nursing board policies vary, some states will investigate a nurse once they have been announced on a claim, even if it’s not an individual suit. If found guilty, nurses can face reprimand, suspension, or may have their license revoked.

“We always tell nurses, whether you get it from us or from somebody else, you should have your own liability coverage outside of the hospital’s coverage,” advised Griffiths. “You want to make sure you have someone looking out for your best interest. The hospital and the lawyers for the hospital may not have your best interest at heart. They are trying to protect the facility. It’s important to have someone speaking up on your behalf.”

In addition to civil suits, some criminal suits against nurses are being reported across the country. Nurses facing criminal charges could not only lose their license, they could also face jail time.

Nurses can help protect themselves and minimize the risks associated with malpractice by adhering to a few simple measures, according to Griffiths. Among the most important of these measures is to thoroughly document all events. By keeping an ongoing record of time spent with the patient, a busy nurse can be sure of what did or did not happen in each visit, and eliminate any guesswork for a specific chain of events.

It is also important for nurses to share information with the patient, including what medications they are receiving and what procedures are being done. This can prevent medication errors, allergic reactions and even remind the nurse of a doctor’s order that was changed. The nurse should then double check to make sure, and document, that they are doing exactly what was prescribed by the attending physician.

Nurses—especially new graduates—should also be realistic about their own limitations. During long shifts, illnesses, or especially stressful periods, they might want to ask for help from a colleague or alert a supervisor if they need a break or aren’t feeling well enough to care for patients appropriately.

Despite these protective measures, malpractice cases can still occur, so nurses should also consider protecting themselves with professional liability insurance. Coverage is confidential and is only made known to the opposing side once the nurse has been named in a suit.

“The worst calls we get are from nurses who think an incident may have happened and they want to know if it’s too late to get liability coverage,” said Griffiths. “After the fact is definitely too late. They need to protect themselves before anything happens.”

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