Oregon-Failure to Prevent Suicides – medical malpractice

Suicide can be difficult to predict, but when at-risk factors are recognized, many suicidal individuals can be saved. Up to one-third of the United States population have experienced suicidal thoughts, however, most people do not act on them. In certain situations, a healthcare provider’s failure to prevent a suicide can result in medical malpractice.


Suicide following a premature discharge from the emergency room

A hospital does not commit malpractice by simply failing to predict a patient’s suicide. Malpractice has been found, however, when a patient is discharged because of economic considerations or when healthcare providers fail to heed a suicidal patient’s warning signs.


An insurer’s refusal to cover medical expenses can lead to a premature discharge in many situations. If the patient subsequently commits suicide or attempts suicide and suffers injury in the days immediately following the discharge, the injured patient or family members could bring a malpractice claim. A major warning sign of a premature discharge due to economic considerations is when the patient makes a “remarkable recovery” soon after the insurer refuses to cover treatment.


Malpractice also occurs where the ER physician or hospital staff was negligent in their examination of the patient. If a patient informs the ER that they are suicidal, the physician should conduct a suicide risk assessment and document the assessment in the patient’s medical file. Following a risk assessment, the physician should decide if the patient should be admitted. Just because a physician decides against hospitalization does not necessarily mean that malpractice has occurred, as long as the physician was acting reasonably in their decision. If the patient is discharged, the discharging physician should develop a treatment plan with the patient, implementing anti-suicide precautions.


Patients prematurely discharged are at a high-risk of suicide. Providers should adequately assess not only the patient’s mental health prior to discharge, but should also consider the patient’s home-life outside of the hospital. Unfortunately, many hospitals do not spend money to adequately train their staff on suicide warning signs, as most damages a hospital could be liable for are covered under malpractice insurance.


In sum, hospitals should adequately assess the mental health and home-life of all suicidal patients presenting to the ER before discharging them. These assessments should be documented in the patient’s medical file. If the patient is discharged, the physician should implement a treatment plan with the patient complete with anti-suicide precautions. Patients and family members should be suspicious of any “remarkable recoveries” immediately following an insurer’s coverage denial, as this could indicate the patient is being discharged for economic considerations.


Suicides Following a Suicide Watch


About 6% of all suicides in the United States are committed in a hospital setting. Juries are generally more favorable towards the injured party in these cases, because inpatient suicides are generally viewed as the most avoidable, since hospital staff is nearby. The most frequent cause of inpatient suicides is inadequate patient monitoring. Other causes include patient access to private areas and the healthcare provider’s failure to conduct a suicide assessment.


Many inpatient suicides occur when the patient is already on a suicide watch. Typically, hospitals check on suicidal patients every fifteen minutes, however, this might not be enough. These standards are too infrequent because it could take as little as four to eight minutes for a patient to successfully commit suicide. Even patients under a constant surveillance can commit suicide if the hospital staff fails to adequately supervise the patient. For example, there have been reports of suicides occurring after a staff member has fallen asleep or when the watcher is taking care of other patients when they are supposed to be monitoring the suicidal patient.  These problems typically occur when the hospital is understaffed and the current employees are overworked.


Patient access to private areas, especially areas with a locking door, such as a bathroom, are also a cause for concern. If a patient has access to a private area, certain precautions can be made to insure patient safety. Ligature attachments, such as support bars or plumbing fixtures, can cause hanging concerns, however, these concerns can be alleviated by installing stainless steel boxes around plumbing fixtures and “plates” to support bars.


Finally, a hospital could be liable for an inpatient suicide even if they did not know of the patient’s suicide risk, but would have known if they had conducted a proper suicide assessment. As discussed above, these assessments should help the hospital determine the patient’s mental health. If the patient’s suicide risk is unknown, the hospital should assume the patient is at high-risk.


Unfortunately, many people commit suicides in a hospital every year. These suicides are generally viewed as preventable because they most likely would not have occurred if the hospital staff had adequately monitored the at-risk patient. Patients at a high-risk for suicide should be monitored more frequently than every fifteen minutes, and the staff monitoring the patient should not be distracted by other tasks.


Advocates for those who lost a loved one due to patient suicide malpractice


If you have lost a loved one due to suicide malpractice, contact the medical malpractice attorneys at Kuhlman Law, LLC for a Free Case Analysis Initial Consultation. We stand up for victims of medical negligence and handle medical malpractice cases on a contingency fee basis. Call today for a free case analysis at (541) 385-1999.


We handle cases throughout Oregon including: Bend, Portland, Salem, Eugene, Corvallis, Medford, Deschutes County, Central Oregon, Sisters, Redmond, Lake Oswego, Hillsboro, Multnomah County, Washington County, Hood River, Clackamas County, Oregon City, Jefferson County, Crook County, Coos Bay, Lane County, Douglas County, Yamhill County, Tillamook County, Clatsop, Columbia Klamath, Wasco, Madras, Prineville, Crook, Lane, Pendleton, Umatilla, La Grande, Albany, and Vancouver, Washington.

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