Thursday, August 18, 2011

The bad and good news for doctors about malpractice lawsuits

Most doctors in America will be sued at some point during their career, a Harvard study released yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine has found. Physicians who perform high-risk procedures, including neurosurgeons and obstetricians, face a near certainty of being named in a malpractice case before they reach age 65.

Yet a relatively small number of claims, about 22 percent, result in payments to patients or their families.

“Doctors get sued far more frequently than anyone would have thought, and in some specialties, it’s extremely high,’’ said Amitabh Chandra, an economist and professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and an author of the study. “In some sense, the payment is the least important part, because you can insure against it, but you can’t insure against the hassle cost.’’

The study looked at claims data for nearly 41,000 physicians from 1991 to 2005. The researchers found that 7.4 percent of physicians had a malpractice claim against them each year and that 1.6 percent had a claim that led to a payment each year.

The likelihood and outcome of lawsuits varied considerably across specialties. But the fact that even doctors in low-risk areas of practice, such as family medicine, had a 75 percent chance of being sued during their career is cause for concern, Chandra said. ...

Chandra and his coauthor, Dr. Anupam B. Jena of Mass. General, said they hope their study will dispel the fear that many doctors have of big payouts. Their study found just 66 claims that resulted in payments exceeding $1 million. Average claims by specialty ranged from $117,832 in dermatology to $520,923 in pediatrics.
--Chelsea Conaboy, Boston Globe, on malpractice litigation statistics