Surgical residents not immune to malpractice claims; average payout $900K

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Surgical residents in the early years of training are vulnerable to malpractice lawsuits. A new study found that of the 87 malpractice claims identified, nearly half resulted in a jury verdict or settlement in favor of the patient or family member.

Surgical residents, particularly junior residents, are vulnerable to malpractice lawsuits, a new study found.

The research published in JAMA Surgery, was based on a review of malpractice cases involving surgical residents and highlights the importance of perioperative management, especially for residents in their first and second year of training, and the importance of supervision by attending physicians to help prevent litigation.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota reviewed a legal research database of malpractice cases involving surgical interns, residents and fellows during a 10-year period and found that 70% of cases involved elective surgery and 69% named a junior resident. A lack of direct supervision by attending physicians was cited in 55% of the cases.

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Of the 87 malpractice claims identified, nearly half resulted in a jury verdict or settlement in favor of the patient or family member. The payouts for the cases ranged from $1,852 to $32 million, with a median of $900,000—higher than previous studies indicated.

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In 67 cases, patients died or suffered permanent disability. Cases more often involved the doctors' perioperative medical knowledge, decision-making errors and injuries.

While physicians win most malpractice cases, the researchers noted the negative consequences to doctors, which can be profound. In addition to high payouts, it took a median of four years to close the malpractice cases, which “likely profoundly affected the involved surgical trainees in the beginning of their careers,” the study said. Physician burnout, already a factor for many surgical trainees, is associated with recent malpractice suits.