By George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law
I review numerous letters, e-mails, memoranda, and other kinds of correspondence prepared by my physician and nurse clients over the span of my legal representation of them. Frequently this is the result of a dispute with a hospital, a dispute with their peers or the medical staff, a dispute with an insurance company, a law suit filed by a patient, a complaint being investigated by the licensing agency, or another serious legal matter.
In several cases, way too many cases, such correspondence is unprofessional and defeats the purpose of the reason you are sending the correspondence. At times it is so bad, it will be disregarded by the reader to whom it was directed. I have seen this from doctors, nurses, dentists, psychologists, owners of health care businesses, and many, many other highly educated professionals who really should know better.
When these documents are dictated and transcribed by a professional medical transcriptionist, they are usually formatted correctly and many of the errors I see are avoided. However, when the health professional types his or her own document, that is when I see the most errors.
To avoid these errors that make your correspondence and professional communications look unprofessional, follow these tips.
Remember Why You Are Writing.
Remember, the basic purpose of your correspondence is to communicate ideas effectively. In many cases, it will be to invoke your legal rights in certain situations (such as an appeal or a hearing request). Sometimes it will be to attempt to persuade your hospital, your peers, or your employer to take certain action or to refrain from certain action. Remember that your correspondence is often the first impression that the other side will have of you. Do you want it to be an impression that you are sloppy, lazy, unprofessional, not knowledgeable, uneducated, or confused?
Whether you are communicating in a letter or via e-mail, these rules hold true. In many (if not all) situations involving legal proceedings or legal issues, it is probably best to communicate via a letter sent by U.S. mail or some other reliable service (e.g., Federal Express, Airborne Express, DHL, etc.). Even if you are transmitting your information via an e-mail, it is my suggestion to prepare it in the form of a paper letter (if your e-mail is not set up to insert your letterhead) and then scan it in and send it electronically.
I discourage legal communications via e-mail in serious matters because they are often difficult to obtain, isolate, and authenticate when you need them for hearings. Additionally, they are rarely secure, often available to many others who shouldn’t see them and easily susceptible to being accidentally sent to others who should not see them at all.
Horror Stories of Unprofessional Correspondence.
Why do I feel this blog is necessary? Because of all the horrible correspondence I have seen written by allegedly highly educated professionals, mostly physicians and nurses. That’s why.
Here are just a few:
Physician never wrote a separate response to any charges or allegations made against him on any peer review documents. He would just hand write (scribble, actually) his remarks on the bottoms and in the margins of whatever document he was sent to him and then send it back.
Nurse practitioner was required to respond to serious charges of negligence resulting in an adverse outcome to a patient. She hand wrote, on unlined paper, a response letter that was not addressed to anyone, not dated, not signed and did snot state who was sending it.
The physician was required to provide his analysis of a patient’s case for peer review purposes. His typed letter of three pages, single spaced, contained one long paragraph. I used to work for a Medical Corps Admiral when I was a Navy JAG Corps officer. He would just glance at such correspondence and state: “I can tell this doctor doesn’t have any idea what he is talking about.” Failing to follow good correspondence procedures will show others your thoughts lack organization and cohesion.
A health professional was required to complete an application for clinical privileges. He wrote all of the answers by hand, not even staying within the lines on the form, writing over the questions and around in the margins of the application. This is what he signed and turned in. Believe me, this did not look very professional.
Physician was requested to respond to a medical staff inquiry from the hospital. Her response came back typed in 22 characters per inch (cpi) size type font, almost too small to read. Perhaps she was just trying to save a sheet of paper. But many of us would have had to pull out a magnifying glass to be able to read it. If you are actually trying to communicate your ideas, make your correspondence easier to read, not harder to read.
A dentist was notified of a pending complaint investigation being opened against her dental license. She wrote her response to the charges back to the investigator, without using any business address or title, and began her response statement “Dear Sharon,”. Do not treat others informally, especially in professional or formal situations. You will be deemed to be unprofessional when you do so.
Tips for Good Professional Correspondence.
Here are some pointers on professional communications that should be followed in all of your professional written communications about business, professional or legal matters, even in e-mails. Please note, the terms below in quotation marks have certain defined meanings. If you don’t know what these terms mean, look them up.
1. Always remember that the reason you are sending the correspondence is to attempt to effectively and accurately communicate your position and ideas. If you are trying to make your message indecipherable or difficult to understand, ignore these tips. If you are trying to come across as someone who doesn’t give a damn about how he or she is perceived, ignore these tips. If you want to come across as unprofessional, ignore these tips.
2. Make sure you include your complete and correct “return address” and contact information. This includes your physical or mailing address, telephone number, telefax number and e-mail address, so that the other party knows exactly how to reach you. In cases where you already have this on your letterhead, be sure to use your letterhead. Also, it appears more professional to create a letter head with the information in it and to use your new letterhead instead of having a professional business letter with a typed “return address.” However, a typed “return address” is better than none.
3. Don’t use someone else’s letterhead. Don’t use your hospital, medical group or institutional letterhead for your own personal communications, unless you are the owner. Use your personal letterhead (see above), instead. If you are being accused of poor utilization review, unprofessional conduct, or personal use of hospital (or company) property, then using someone else’s letterhead just helps prove the charge against you.
4. Date your correspondence. Date your correspondence. Date your correspondence. Nothing shows a lack of professionalism and lack of attention to detail as sharply as undated correspondence. It will certainly be difficult to prove when your letter or document was sent if you do not have a date on it. A year or two later, it may be completely impossible to do so.
Contact Experienced Health Law Attorneys.
The Health Law Firm routinely represents pharmacists, pharmacies, physicians, nurses and other health providers in investigations, regulatory matters, licensing issues, litigation, inspections and audits involving the DEA, Department of Health (DOH) and other law enforcement agencies. Its attorneys include those who are board certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law as well as licensed health professionals who are also attorneys.
To contact The Health Law Firm, please call (407) 331-6620 or (850) 439-1001 and visit our website at www.TheHealthLawFirm.com.
About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law is an attorney with The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. www.TheHealthLawFirm.com The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Avenue, Altamonte Springs, Florida 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620.
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Don’t Detract From Your Professional Reputations. Always Ensure Your Correspondence Looks Professional: 30 Tips
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