Routine Actions Can Result in Malpractice Suits
Malpractice suits often originate in the most routine actions. A client, who was moving to another state, asked her therapist, Christine Hurst, L.C.S.W., for a referral. Ms. Hurst knew another social worker in the area where the patient was relocating. She gave her client this social worker’s name and suggested the client seek further treatment with this therapist. After the client moved, Ms. Hurst received a request for a transfer of the client’s records to the new therapist.
Imagine Ms. Hurst’s surprise when one year later, she is sued by the client. The former client alleged that the subsequent treating therapist had committed malpractice in the course of her treatment. Furthermore, she alleged that Ms. Hurst bore some responsibility for referring her to such a substandard therapist.
Referrals are a routine part of health care. However, if a referral is made in a negligent manner, you might be found partially responsible by a court for providing that referral. If the subsequent treating therapist does not have malpractice insurance, it is even more likely that you could become the "deep pocket" for making a negligent referral.
Risk Management Techniques
There are two well-established risk management techniques for handling referrals. First, give more than one name to a client whenever you make a referral. You may want to provide referral resources, such as the NASW Clinical Register directory or the NASW office, if you can’t provide multiple names.
Also, make every effort to be neutral about the referral options, so that the client does not perceive your favoring any one particular name or source. By giving your client options, you are placing some of the burden on your client to check credentials and make comparisons between therapists.
If you cannot avoid providing only one name, you must establish a consistent procedure for checking credentials, licensing, experience and any NASW sanctions. You should interview the agency or individual you are considering for a referral. You should interview other professionals in the community to gauge the agency’s or individual’s reputation. Follow this procedure diligently whenever making referrals and re-verify the information you collect on a routine basis. By showing you exercised due diligence in making a referral, you can show that you acted professionally and reasonably when making the referral.
Regardless of which method you use, always record the names of persons, agencies, or other referral sources you have provided your client. Your records are your best defense in any malpractice litigation and will protect you if your referral is ever questioned in the future.
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