Miscommunication at root of medical malpractice, McHenry County doctor, attorney say

CRYSTAL LAKE – Dr. Neelam Gandhi has gone through three medical malpractice lawsuits over the course of her career as an obstetrician and gynecologist.

The cases are incredibly stressful and leave her wondering what she could have done differently, full of self-blame even if she knows she didn’t do anything wrong.

“You like to think there’s a line between the person and the professional,” Gandhi said. “Most people become physicians because they want to help people, and obviously if something goes wrong, you feel like it’s a personal attack.”

Each year just more than 7 percent of physicians had a malpractice claim with 78 percent of those claims resulting in no payment, according to a 2011 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The percent is higher for physicians who share Gandhi’s specialty, more than 10 percent, although physicians with specialties in neurosurgery, thoracic-cardiovascular surgery and general surgery were more at-risk, the study showed.

Most of these lawsuits do not result in a payout, said Tom Popovich, a McHenry-based attorney who hears from between 100 and 200 patients and their families, but only ends up taking one or two cases each year.

“Juries look upon doctors as being intelligent, hard working,” Popovich said. “Juries presume that doctors didn’t do anything wrong.”

Malpractice lawsuits usually start with a simple problem, a lack of communication, Popovich said, recalling a client whose spouse went into the emergency room complaining of chest pain.

The doctor ordered the right test and asked for it to be done immediately. But it wasn’t. For whatever reason, the test didn’t get done and the patient died.

“It’s very hard for family members to understand that their loved one died just because of a simple miscommunication error,” Popovich said.

Dr. Kenneth Albrecht, an internist and home health care specialist who works throughout McHenry County, also thinks communication is at the heart of the malpractice issue.

Albrecht, who has never been sued and said he’d likely leave the profession if he was, points to his methodology for keeping himself out of the courtroom. He spends about twice as much time with each patient as a typical doctor and uses electronic medical record software that he developed.

“What I noticed [during my residency] was patients were disgusted, felt lost and treated like a number in the system, and I definitely knew that I did not want that,” he said. “I wondered ‘Why is that? Why is that?’ Medicine is so damn disorganized that it’s difficult for physicians to sort of control anything. What I knew patients really needed and what they wanted was quality time with me, not just time but quality time.”

The relationships he builds with his patients allow them to forgive him if he makes a mistake, he said.

A 2003 report issued by the risk management office of the Texas-based Baylor Health Care System also pointed to communication as a "root cause" of malpractice claims as it advised doctors to recognize a patient's frustration and possible fear, express regret about a bad result and explain what happened.

Part of what Gandhi tries to communicate to her patients is that a pregnancy is a time when a woman is most at-risk – with their health, with their risk for being the victim of domestic abuse and for being discriminated against at work.

“People want instant results, and there’s a lot of high expectation,” Gandhi said. “People expect a perfect pregnancy with a perfect baby. People don’t realize that pregnancy can be a scary medical time. There’s so many things that can go wrong.”