Psychiatrist Liability and Suicide: The Need for Tort Reform to Safeguard Physicians and Patients

Article

Here’s how tort reform can help improve patient outcomes and reduce health care costs.

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FROM OUR READERS

As a health care provider, I am writing to express my concern regarding the increasing liability issues faced by psychiatrists in cases of patient suicide. The articles by Pinals1; Bleich, et al2; and Sabe, et al,3 highlight the complexity of the issue and the challenges faced by psychiatrists in providing adequate care to patients at risk of suicide.

In addition, the article by Rodziewicz, et al,4 underscores the importance of medical error reduction and prevention, which is particularly relevant in the context of psychiatric care and patient suicide.

Psychiatrists are facing an increasing burden of liability in cases of patient suicide. The legal framework surrounding psychiatrists’ liability is complex, and it varies from state to state. Some states have laws that limit the liability of psychiatrists in cases of patient suicide, while others hold psychiatrists strictly liable. This lack of uniformity in liability laws creates uncertainty for psychiatrists and can discourage them from providing necessary care to patients at risk of suicide.

Moreover, the threat of liability can cause psychiatrists to practice defensive medicine, which involves ordering unnecessary tests and procedures to protect themselves from potential lawsuits. This can lead to increased health care costs and divert resources away from patients who need them the most. Defensive medicine also undermines the trust between patients and their physicians and can lead to decreased patient satisfaction.

Patients who are at risk of suicide also suffer from the current liability framework. Psychiatrists may be hesitant to provide necessary care to patients who are at risk of suicide because they fear being held liable if the patient does eventually take their own life. This can result in patients not receiving the care they need, which can lead to tragic outcomes. Moreover, patients who are at risk of suicide may feel stigmatized and may be hesitant to seek help because of the fear of being labeled “high risk.”

Tort reform is needed to protect both psychiatrists and patients. Tort reform can help create a uniform liability framework that is fair to both parties. It can also limit the amount of damages that can be awarded in cases of patient suicide, which can help reduce the burden of liability on psychiatrists. By reducing the threat of liability, psychiatrists can provide necessary care to patients who are at risk of suicide without fear of being sued. This can lead to better patient outcomes and help reduce health care costs.

In conclusion, the liability framework surrounding psychiatrists and patient suicide is complex and can lead to negative outcomes for both psychiatrists and patients. Tort reform is needed to create a uniform liability framework that is fair to both parties and that encourages psychiatrists to provide necessary care to patients at risk of suicide. By protecting both psychiatrists and patients, we can improve patient outcomes and reduce health care costs.

Dr Ajluni is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University in Livonia, Michigan.

From the author: I would like to acknowledge the helpful contributions of ChatGPT in the production of this article. However, I emphasize that I assume full responsibility for the content, including all ideas, arguments, and conclusions presented herein.

References

1. Pinals DA. Liability and patient suicideFocus (Am Psychiatr Publ). 2019;17(4):349-354.

2. Bleich A, Baruch Y, Hirschmann S, et al. Management of the suicidal patient in the era of defensive medicine: focus on suicide risk assessment and boundaries of responsibilityIsr Med Assoc J. 2011;13(11):653-656.

3. Sabe M, Kaiser S, Niveau G. Suicide in psychiatry and medical liability: a case seriesInt J Law Psychiatry. 2021;74:101671.

4. Rodziewicz TL, Houseman B, Hipskind JE. Medical error reduction and prevention. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; May 2, 2023.

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