Who’s Getting Sued? Understanding Trends in Medical Malpractice Cases

Being sued for malpractice is far more common for physicians than you may think; one Medscape survey found that 59% of respondents had been named in a malpractice suit least once.[1] Who exactly are these doctors, what specialties are more susceptible to malpractice suits, and where are they most frequently occurring? This piece aims to build upon the  article we posted last October describing the top 10 errors physicians make that can result in them being sued. In this post, we’ll be focusing on the demographics of the physicians’ accused of making such errors. Read on to learn the basics!


The Most and Least Vulnerable Specialties

Obstetricians/gynecologists and surgeons are the physicians most likely to be sued.[2] In 2015, Medscape found that 85% of ob/gyns and 83% of general surgeons reported being sued, followed closely by orthopedists at 79% and radiologists at 72%.[3] On the lower end are internal medicine/family medicine physicians at 46% and oncologists at 34%.[4] Surgeons find themselves under fire more frequently due to the increased risk of serious injury and death during surgery, while ob/gyns can be faced with charges of late or undiagnosed cancer as well as birth-related errors, among other things.


How Gender Factors In

One study conducted in 2015 found that male doctors were nearly two and a half times more likely to be subjected to medical-related legal action than female doctors.[5] The Medscape survey referenced above also reflects this trend with its findings: 64% of male respondents reported being sued while only 49% of women respondents reported being sued. Though there is a complex set of factors that led to this outcome, this disparity has not changed over the course of 15 years, so cannot be blamed on the lack of women in the field, since this number has continually been increasing.[6]


Does Age Matter?

Age can definitely have an impact on your chances of being sued as a physician. In the Medscape survey, by age 54, 64% of physicians had experienced at least one malpractice suit, but after age 60, the percentage rises to about 80%.[7] Additionally, an analysis in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that 36% of physicians in low-risk specialties and 88% of those in high-risk specialties would experience a first claim by age 45, while those percentages would increase to 75% and 99%, respectively, by age 65.[8] This trend might simply be because the longer one practices, the more chances one has to be accused of malpractice, but a doctor’s real or perceived health can play a role in a patient’s trust of them as well as their actual abilities.


Statistics Regarding Work Setting

The frequency of claims also varies based on where a doctor practices. A 2011 JAMA study reported that paid claims for events occurring in inpatient settings were slightly higher than those in outpatient settings (48% vs. 43%), and Medscape found that the largest percentages of those facing lawsuits were in office-based solo practices (70%) or single-specialty groups (64%).[9] In general, physicians who have an ownership interest in a practice are at a greater risk, while one of the lowest percentages (53%) reported regarding physicians sued was in regards to physicians working in office-based multispecialty groups.[10]


Already Been Sued? Expect It to Happen Again

Last year, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a study conducted by researchers who analyzed 10 years worth of malpractice claims.[11] They found that a doctor who had two paid claims was twice as likely to have another as a doctor who had one, and a doctor who had six or more paid claims was twelve times as likely to have another.[12] Therefore, being named in a malpractice suit for the first time might signal more in the future.

Whether you’re defending a physician or a patient, it’s important to know the trends and statistics that can inform your perspective and support your case. Though there are always exceptions, understanding which physicians may find themselves in hot water most frequently can help you better understand what systematic changes are most important to make.

[1] Peckham, Carol, “Malpractice and Medicine: Who Gets Sued and Why?” Medscape.com, Dec. 8, 2015, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/855229_1

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid; Salber, Patricia, “What Happens When Doctors Get Sued,” thedoctorweighsin.com, Dec. 9, 2015, https://thedoctorweighsin.com/what-happens-when-doctors-get-sued/

[4] Salber, “What Happens”

[5] Unwin, Emily, Katherine Woolf, Clare Wadlow, Henry W. W. Potts, and Jane Dacre, “Sex differences in medico-legal action against doctors: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” ncbi.gov, Aug. 13 2015,  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4535538/

[6] Gebelhoff, Robert, “Male doctors are more likely to be sued tan females, study finds,” washingtonpost.com, Aug. 18, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2015/08/18/male-doctors-are-more-likely-to-be-sued-than-females-study-finds/?utm_term=.b271d8ef2731

[7] Peckham, “Malpractice and Medicine”

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Bakalar, Nicholas, “Doctors Who Get Sued Are Likely to Get Sued Again,” Nytimes.com, Jan 26, 2016, https://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/well/2016/01/27/doctors-who-get-sued-are-likely-to-get-sued-again/?referer=

[12] Ibid