Despite the headlines politicans make denouncing frivolous lawsuits and large jury awards, a comprehensive study found that only about one in five malpractice claims against physicians results in some kind of payment. And neurosurgeons were at the greatest risk of being sued.
Those were some of the findings of a study that analyzed malpractice data from 1991 through 2005 for 41,000 doctors covered by a major insurer. The results of that study were published online last week by The New England Journal of Medicine, and made headlines across the nation.
The study determined that each year 7.4 percent of all doctors had a malpractice claim filed againt them, with 1.6 percent having a claim lead to a payment. Therefore, the study said, “78 percent of all claims did not result in payments to claimants.”
One should cast a skeptical eye on the study, because only a small portion of patients harmed by doctors ever file malpractice suits. Such malpractice cases are expensive for a lawyer to bring to court, since he or she will have to hire expensive experts to testify on behalf of the plaintiffs, a big upfront cost. And such cases are taken on a contingency basis, which means an attorney risks walking away without any compensation if he or she loses the case.
Nonetheless, the new study offers some interesting information. It found that the proportion of the medical specialties that each faced claims was: neurosurgery, 19.1 percent; thoracic-cardiovascular surgery, 18.9 percent; general surgery, 15.3 percent; family medicine, 5.2 percent; pediatrics, 3.1 percent; and psychiatrt, 2.6 percent.
At first it was surprising that obstetrics wasn’t on that particular list. But then we read this part of the report.
“Outlier awards, which were defined as those exceeding $1 million, were infrequent, in part because the full size of outlier awards would not have been recorded if they had exceeded individual policy limits,” the report said. “Sixty six payments exceeded this amount, accounting for less than 1 percent of all payments. Obstetrics and gynecology accounted for the most payments (11).”
The mean indemnity payment was $274,887 across all the specialties, and the median was $111,749. The study found that payments ranged from $117,832 for dematology to $520,923 for pediatrics.
“Specialties that were the most likely to face indemnity claims were often not those with the highest average payments,” the study said. “For example, the average payment for neurosurgeons ($344,811) was less than the average payment for pathologists ($383,509) or for pediatricians ($520,924) , even though the neurosurgeons were several times more likely to face a claim in a year.”
Attorney Gordon Johnson
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice
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