Correction: The study showed that every year, 7.4% of doctors are hit with a malpractice claim, but 22% of these claims lead to a payment. Updated 8:50 a.m. ET, Aug. 31, 2011
Doctors may see prevention against medical malpractice liability (MPL) claims in future legislation, a welcome reform in an environment where most doctors face at least one lawsuit in their career, a new study says.
Doctors specializing in psychiatry, pediatrics, family medicine, dermatology and “other specialties,” the five least-sued specialties, have a 75% chance of getting sued by age 65, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).
Doctors in the five most-sued specialties—neurosurgery, thoracic cardiovascular surgery, general surgery, orthopedic surgery and plastic surgery—have a 99% change of getting sued.
The study showed that every year, 7.4% of doctors are hit with a malpractice claim, but 22% of these claims lead to a payment. Doctors through age 65 in the low-risk specialties run a 19% risk of facing a suit that pays off for the plaintiff, compared with a 71% risk for the high-risk specialties, the study reported.
Doctors fear that being sued, even if they are not found responsible, affects their professional credibility, the NEJM study found.
“The perceived threat of malpractice among physicians may boil down to three factors: the risk of a claim, the probability of a claim leading to a payment, and the size of payment,” according to the text of the study. “One may speculate that the large number of claims that do not lead to payment may shape perceived malpractice risk. Physicians can insure against indemnity payments through malpractice insurance, but they cannot insure against the indirect costs of litigation, such as time, stress, added work and reputational damage.”
Exactly 70% of the claims and suits brought against doctors do not result in payments to patients, according to the Physician Insurers Association of American (PIAA). The defense prevails 80% of the time for claims resolved at verdict.
“Meritless claims, which are numerous because of the current MPL system, needlessly clog the courts, consume resources that would otherwise help injured patients, and delay compensation to those who have been truly injured,” said PIAA President Lawrence E. Smarr in a statement. “For these reasons alone, federal tort reform is long overdue.”
The bipartisan Budget Control Act of 2011 (H.R. 2693), which included MPL reform, failed to pass the House of Representatives in a 246-173 vote July 30.
Another bill (H.R. 5), the Help Efficient, Accessible, Low-cost, Timely Healthcare (HEALTH) Act, contains a number of reforms that are “critical” for improving the fairness and efficiency of the medical liability system, according to the PIAA.
These reforms include a $250,000 cap on subjective, noneconomic damages; collateral source rule reform allowing evidence of outside payments to be made in court; a ban on subrogation by collateral sources; a fee schedule for attorney contingency fees to ensure victims of negligence receive the funds they need; and periodic payments of future damages so funds are available to injured patients at the time they need them.