Telemedicine and Medical Malpractice

There is good news and bad news about technological advances and their application in medical field. The good news is that electronic communications are making it possible for health care providers to interact with patients via text messages, email, webcam and other devices. The bad news is that it appears this type of intervention may lead to more instances of medical malpractice than the traditional face-to-face encounters.

A recent Wall Street Journal article provides a comprehensive overview of how telemedicine is being used and the benefits experienced by both providers and patients. It also discusses some of the pitfalls that need to be addressed in order to improve care and decrease the potential for medical malpractice actions.

The Good News: Telemedicine and the Transformation of Health Care

The American Telemedicine Association reports that in 2015, more than 15 million people received remote treatment by way of telemedicine. That figure is expected to grow by 30% in 2016. Some of the positive ways in which telemedicine has improved and transformed health care include:

  • Patients who have chronic medical conditions report their heart rate and blood pressure to their doctors without having to travel to the provider’s office for an in-person appointment.
  • Doctors in large, sophisticated medical centers provide continuous monitoring of patients in intensive care units (ICUs) of smaller, more remote hospitals. Physicians are able to use the zoom feature to even “read the tiny print on an IV bag.” One critical-care specialist, commenting on the positive aspects of this type of medical care, stated that even though she cannot actually use a defibrillator on a patient to restart a failing heart, she “can give an order to the nurses there.”
  • Doctors Without Borders, which provides care to patients in remote areas, states that every day, its physicians use the internet between five and 10 times a day to contact experts around the world for help.
  • The Mercy Health System in St. Louis has nurses and doctors working round-the-clock to provide medical support to 38 smaller hospitals in more remote locations. The health care professionals are ready to advise local doctors on diagnosis and treatment of patients in ICUs and emergency rooms. Mercy states that it had 30% fewer deaths in 2015 than anticipated and credits telemedicine with the improvement.

The Bad News: Telemedicine May Be Vulnerable to Medical Malpractice Claims

According to the Wall Street Journal report, “critics worry that such services may be sacrificing quality for convenience.”

Some of the major concerns are:

  • Some conditions that may seem minor, like upper respiratory infections, cannot be accurately diagnosed long-distance. A doctor needs to actually listen to a patient’s heart, check to see if any glands are swollen and take a throat culture. All are procedures that must be done in person.
  • A simple sore throat requires a throat culture or “rapid test,” neither of which can be provided through remote care. Antibiotics should only be prescribed after the results confirm there has been a streptococcus infection.
  • A dermatology study evaluated 62 patient encounters. Medical providers discussed side effects of prescribed medications in less than one-third of the cases. There were “many” instances of serious conditions not being diagnosed at all or of being misdiagnosed.

Although the use of telemedicine itself does not support a claim for medical malpractice, the health care provider still must meet the same appropriate standard of care as in a face-to-face medical intervention. If this happened to you, and you experienced medical treatment by interacting with your health care provider by way of an electronic device, the one area in which some experts believe you may have trouble is proving you had a physician/patient relationship.

For more information and for a free case evaluation, contact is at Abrahamson & Uiterwyk and speak with one of our personal injury and medical malpractice attorneys.