There is a link between the personality characteristics of surgeons and the number of medical malpractice suits filed against them, according to recent research by a physician-owned consulting firm.
However, running counter to expectations, initial analysis shows that agreeable doctors are more likely to end up as defendants.
The Woods Development Institute of Pipersville, Pa., which specializes in physician leadership development, and the Management Psychology Group, an Atlanta-based consulting firm specializing in employee personality, mailed 1,000 surveys to a national sample of physicians.
The survey asked physicians to rank from 1 to 5 how strongly they identified with 300 adjectives such as "likeable," "approachable," "forthright," "loud" and "leisurely," according to Michael Woods, M.D., a former surgeon and principal of WDI.
Those responses were used to group physicians into broader categories depicting personality type. The personality measurements then were compared with each physician's malpractice claims experience, based on data gleaned from insurance company records.
Researchers received 234 survey responses but focused their initial analysis on the 103 coming from surgeons, Woods says.
"The results of our study confirm what insurers and health care organizations have suspected for years: A substantial number of medical malpractice claims are related to a physician's behavior or communication, both of which are influenced by the individual's personality," says Woods, a member of the Modern Physician Editorial Advisory Board.
"The assessment seems to accurately predict who has had a claim recently and may be at a higher risk for claims in the near future," Woods says. "While these results are based upon surgeons, we have reason to believe the assessment will be useful in other specialties, too."
Going in, Woods says, he thought surgeons with the archetype irascible behavior pattern would be linked to higher levels of malpractice claims, but the results ran "a little bit counter to what we expected."
"It appears that agreeableness and tolerance and a sense of easygoingness are risk factors for higher claims, but the reason is because those items are associated with a lack of attention to detail," he says.
Also, Woods says, "these individuals seem to be less willing to address conflict. They seem to be more interested in being liked."
Surveys of patients involved in malpractice claims have reported feelings of being abandoned by their physicians, Woods says. Easygoing physicians, meanwhile, "because of their lack of willingness to deal with confrontational situations, when confronted with a bad outcome, may go into avoidance mode and make the situation worse."
Woods says the firm is attempting to validate the survey results by sending a second survey to 1,500 additional physicians. Researchers will then predict the claims level of those new physicians based on the results of the first survey, says Woods, who is scheduled to present details of the study at the May 21-24 meeting of the Physician Insurers Association of America in Chicago.
A column by Woods on physician behavior appears in the May issue of Modern Physician magazine.