Physician Lawsuits Not Uncommon, AMA Says

Christopher Cheney, for HealthLeaders Media , August 27, 2010

About 70% of both general surgeons and OB/GYNs are sued. Pediatricians (27%) and psychiatrists (22%) were the least likely to be sued.

Does a claim = a medical error?

"Claim frequency should not be used as an estimate of the error rate or malpractice rate in medicine," states the report.

Most claims (65%) are dropped, dismissed, or withdrawn. Another 25.7% of suits are settled out of court, and 4.5% were decided using an alternative method. Five percent went to trial; in those cases, 90% of the time, the physician won.

One reason why 22% of physicians are sued twice or more is that practice owners are more often sued than nonpractice owners. Known as the doctrine of respondeat superior, the employer of a practice can be held accountable for a tort even though the claim stems from the care provided by the employee. For example, if an employed physician was accused of medical malpractice, the practice owner could be sued. That means, one physician owner could rack up more malpractice claims than other physicians without necessarily committing more medical errors.

Costs of claims

Even though most claims are dropped, lawsuits do not go without financial consequences. The costs of indemnity payments can range from $22,000 for dropped or dismissed claims to $100,000 for those claims that go to trial.

"This litigious climate hurts patients' access to physician care at a time when the nation is working to reduce unnecessary healthcare costs," said AMA immediate past-President J. James Rohack, MD, in a statement to HealthLeaders Media.

The AMA, whose position is comprehensive medical liability reform on state and federal levels, supports a cap on damages, according to Rohack.

"The findings in this report validate the need for national and state medical liability reform to rein in our out-of-control system where lawsuits are a matter of when, not if, for physicians," Rohack said.

Karen M. Cheung is associate editor at HCPro, Inc., contributing writer for HealthLeaders Media, and blogger for She can be contacted at

Christopher Cheney is the senior finance editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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