Though rates vary widely by specialty, about 7.4% of all U.S. doctors will be sued for malpractice in a given year, according to results of a study by Harvard researchers that is published in the New England Journal of Medicine. However, only 1.6% of these claims will result in a payment, the researchers found. The research team analyzed a liability insurer's 41,000-physician database of malpractice claims between 1991 and 2005.
Researchers: 7% of docs sued for malpractice in a year
The study, which was funded by the RAND Institute for Civil Justice and the National Institute on Aging, also noted how physicians in specialties most likely to be sued were not those in specialties with the largest average payments. Obstetricians and general surgeons were among those most likely to be sued, yet payments from pediatricians and pathologists—two rarely sued specialties—were much higher on average.
The most-sued specialists were neurosurgeons (19.1% sued each year); and thoracic-cardiovascular surgeons (18.9% sued each year). Pediatricians (3.1%) and psychiatrists (2.6%) were least likely to have a claim filed against them.
Across all specialties, the average payment was $274,887; while the median payout was $111,749. Pediatricians faced the highest average payment, $520,924; pathologists had the second-highest average, $383,509. Dermatologists had the lowest average payment, $117,832. Payments of more than $1 million occurred in less than 1% of the cases studied. (Payments were normalized to 2008 dollars on the basis of the Consumer Price Index, the authors said.)
"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," the authors concluded. "Although the frequency and average size of paid claims may not fully explain perceptions among physicians, one may speculate that the large number of claims that do not lead to payment may shape perceived malpractice risk."
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