Law & Medicine: Which doctors get sued?


Question: Doctors are more prone to lawsuits if they:

A. Have been sued before.

B. Spend fewer dollars per hospitalized patient.

C. Show poor communication skills.

D. A and C only.

E. A, B, and C.

Answer: E. Two very recent studies, one by David M. Studdert and the other by Dr. Anupam B. Jena, offer fresh insights into factors linked to the likelihood of a malpractice lawsuit.

The Studdert study concluded that doctors with prior paid claims are at increased risk of incurring yet another lawsuit.1 Instead of simply relying on data from a single insurer or state, the researchers accessed the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) from 2005 through 2014 and identified 66,426 claims paid against 54,099 physicians.

Dr. S.Y. Tan

Dr. S.Y. Tan

Over that 10-year period, only 1% of physicians accounted for 32% of paid claims. Of all the physicians, 84% incurred only one paid claim during the study period, and 16% had at least two. Four percent of the physicians had at least three. In adjusted analyses, the risk of recurrence increased with the number of previous paid claims.

For example, compared with physicians with a single claim, the 2,160 physicians who had three paid claims had three times the risk of incurring another (hazard ratio, 3.11); this corresponded in absolute terms to a 24% risk within 2 years.

Likelihood of recurrence also varied widely according to specialty. For example, the risk among neurosurgeons was four times greater than that of psychiatrists. As for internists, the risk of recurrence was approximately double that of neurosurgeons, orthopedic surgeons, general surgeons, plastic surgeons, or obstetrician-gynecologists. The lowest risks of recurrence were seen among psychiatrists (HR, 0.60) and pediatricians (HR, 0.71).

Male physicians had a 38% higher risk of recurrence than did female physicians, and the risk among physicians younger than 35 years was approximately one-third that of their older colleagues (after adjustment for age). Residents had a lower risk of recurrence than did nonresidents, and MDs had a lower risk than did DOs.

Using all 915,564 active physicians in the United States as a denominator, the authors calculated that over the 10-year study period, only 6% of physicians had a paid claim. Note that the 6% figure refers to paid claims reported to the NPDB, which can be expected to be lower than statistics derived from published surveys. These latter studies typically feature self-reported malpractice claims made over a given time period; but it is well known that the majority of such claims are dropped or decided in favor of the doctor, and so will not be reported to the NPDB.

For example, in 2010, the American Medical Association found that 42.2% of 5,825 physicians who responded to its Physician Practice Information survey reported having been sued, with 22.4% sued twice or more.2 The report headlined that by mid career, 61% of doctor have been sued.

Rates varied by specialty, with general surgeons and obstetrician-gynecologists being most likely to be sued (69.2%). Family physicians and general internists had similar rates (38.9% and 34%), and pediatricians and psychiatrists were sued the least.

In that report, male doctors were twice as likely to be sued as were their female counterparts, and physicians in solo and specialty practices were sued more often than those in multispecialty practices. Physicians who had an ownership interest in a practice were also at greater risk, with 47.5% reporting being sued, compared with 33.4% for those with no ownership interest.

The second recent study, reported by Dr. Jena of Harvard Medical School, Boston, and his colleagues, analyzed Florida hospital admissions data covering some 24,000 physicians.3 They found that higher spending by physicians was associated with reduced malpractice claims made the following year.

This pattern held true for physicians in all specialties but one (family practice). For example, among internists, the malpractice risk probability was 1.5% in the bottom spending fifth ($19,725 per admission) and 0.3% in the top fifth ($39,379 per admission). Among obstetricians, the comparable figures were 1.9% and 0.4% respectively.

In addition, a separate subgroup analysis of cesarean-section rates revealed that malpractice claims were approximately halved among obstetricians with rates in the highest fifth, compared with the lowest fifth.

Unfortunately, the Jena study lacked information on illness severity and past malpractice history, and it remains speculative whether increased resource utilization could be attributed entirely to defensive medical practice.4

As interesting as these new reports may be, it is worth remembering that what prompts a lawsuit are poor communication and patient perception that the physician is uncaring and at fault for the bad result.

It is well known that quality of medical care correlates poorly with the filing of malpractice lawsuits, as illustrated in the conclusion of the landmark Harvard study that “medical malpractice litigation infrequently compensates patients injured by medical negligence and rarely identifies, and holds providers accountable for, substandard care.”5 The authors estimated that there was only 1 malpractice claim for every 7.6 adverse events caused by negligence.

In another retrospective chart review study, the quality of treatment as judged by independent peer review was no different in frequently sued versus never-sued obstetricians.6

Communication problems exist in more than 70% of malpractice cases, centering around four themes: 1) deserting the patient; 2) devaluing patient/family views; 3) delivering information poorly; and 4) failing to understand the patient/family perspective.7

Anger, either from the adverse result itself or perceived lack of caring, turns an injured patient into a plaintiff, and lies at the root of all malpractice claims. The patients may not even have a serious injury or a meritorious claim, but they are so frustrated with their physician or the hospital that they contact an attorney to vent their anger.

One experienced attorney volunteered that close to half his malpractice cases could have been avoided through disclosure or apology, noting: “What the patients really wanted was simply an honest explanation of what happened, and, if appropriate, an apology. Unfortunately, when they were not only offered neither, but were rejected as well, they felt doubly wronged and then sought legal counsel.”8

Communicating well begins with active listening. Patients want their doctors to listen to them and to explain their conditions and treatment plans in simple, understandable language. The physician should give them ample opportunity to tell their story and to ask questions.

In one well-publicized study, only 23% of patients were able to complete their opening statement before the doctor interrupted, which occurred, on the average, 18 seconds after the patient began to speak!9


1. N Engl J Med. 2016 Jan 28;374(4):354-62.

2. “Medical liability: By late career, 61% of doctors have been sued,” Aug. 16, 2010, American Medical News.

3. BMJ. 2015 Nov 4;351:h5516.

4. “Law & Medicine: Health care costs and defensive medicine,” Jan. 19, 2016, Internal Medicine News.

5. N Engl J Med. 1991 Jul 25;325(4):245-51.

6. JAMA. 1994 Nov 23-30;272(20):1588-91.

7. Arch Intern Med. 1994 Jun 27;154(12):1365-70.

8. Ann Intern Med. 1999 Dec 21;131(12):970-2.

9. Ann Intern Med. 1984 Nov;101(5):692-6.

Dr. Tan is emeritus professor of medicine and former adjunct professor of law at the University of Hawaii, and currently directs the St. Francis International Center for Healthcare Ethics in Honolulu. This article is meant to be educational and does not constitute medical, ethical, or legal advice. Some of the articles in this series are adapted from the author’s 2006 book, “Medical Malpractice: Understanding the Law, Managing the Risk,” and his 2012 Halsbury treatise, “Medical Negligence and Professional Misconduct.” For additional information, readers may contact the author at [email protected]


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