Medicolegal Issues

Avoiding the Pitfalls of “Half-visits”

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Likewise, encourage intake staff to document what they see rather than what they conclude from it. Buzzwords (eg, listless, lethargic) should be avoided. If such characterizations find their way into the record, you must take active steps to address them. Either agree with the characterization and perform appropriate work-up, or establish why you do not agree using the methods described (detailed description, verification by another clinician).

Taking these steps will help to protect you in the event of a changing clinical course. But also be wary of those predictable circumstances that lead you into Mr. Miyagi’s middle of the road (what I call “half-visits”): a quick look at a sibling in the room during a patient’s appointment; a “curbside consult” on the medical assistant’s child; the neighborhood acquaintance who asks you to “just take a look.” Why are these dangerous? Because they remove the clinician from his or her usual routine: proper examination on a properly undressed patient, formal assessment of vital signs, and review of relevant history in the chart, among other things. (In this way, phone and email communications with patients require similar caution.) Skipping the routine leads to shortcuts, and shortcuts lead to bad medicine. And if that doesn’t worry you, remember: All these scenarios create a full legal duty and clinician/patient relationship—making them potential pathways to misdiagnosis and eventual loss of license.


Don’t be party to a “half-visit”; insist on full vital signs and a complete visit following your usual routine. Use observational powers and patient quotations to paint a picture of how a patient looked, get backup from another clinician with similar observations. If you can’t document a reassuring record, protect the patient and make the required intervention.

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