Most physicians face malpractice, but don't pay

Although more than two-thirds of physicians will face at least one malpractice claim during their career, most don't result in actual payments, according to a study published in today's New England Journal of Medicine.

"We were surprised that the probability of facing at least one malpractice claim over the average physician's career was so high and particularly that so many claims did not result in payment," Amitabh Chandra, professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and co-author of the NEJM study, said in a press release.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Kennedy School, the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at the University of Southern California (USC), and the RAND Corporation looked at claims from malpractice insurers from 1991 to 2005. They found that each year, 7.4 percent of all physicians had a claim filed against them. However, only 1.6 percent of them actually made a malpractice payment, with the average claim totaling about $275,000.

Surgery, not surprisingly, faced more claims than other specialties, with neurosurgery (19.1 percent), thoracic and cardiovascular surgery (18.9 percent), and general surgery (15.3 percent) leading the pack. Specialties that witnessed fewer claims included family medicine (5.2 percent), pediatrics (3.1 percent), and psychiatry (2.6 percent). Physicians in risky specialties had a 99 percent chance of facing malpractice claim, while low-risk specialties faced a 75 percent chance.

Interestingly, though, the specialties that faced the most claims didn't dish out the most payments. For instance, the average malpractice payment for pediatricians was $520,924, compared to an average payment of $344,811 for neurosurgeons, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While the reason for the difference wasn't clear, such data begs questions of whether patients are more litigious these days, whether physicians are actually conducting more medical errors, or if doctors are simply not paying up. The study didn't offer a clear explanation but said the trend could have lasting implications, such as physicians practicing more defensive medicine, according to Reuters.

For more information:
- read the press release
- read the Reuters article
- read the WSJ blog post
- check out the study