'Broken' medical liability system is costly to doctors, healthcare system, says AMA

Gavel and flag in courtroom
The AMA says the high number of malpractice lawsuits is costly to the healthcare system. (Getty/AlexStar)

For doctors, it’s a question of when—not if—they will face a medical liability lawsuit.

And that probability is costly to the healthcare system, according to the American Medical Association, which yesterday released a new series of reports that demonstrate the price Americans pay for what it called the “broken” medical liability system.

“Information in this new research paints a bleak picture of physicians’ experiences with medical liability claims and the associated cost burdens on the health system,” said AMA President David O. Barbe, M.D. in the announcement.

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“The reports validate the fact that preserving quality and access in medicine, while reducing cost, requires fairness in the civil justice system. Every dollar spent on the broken medical liability system is a dollar that cannot be used to improve patient care,” Barbe said.

More than a third of physicians (34%) have had a liability claim filed against them at some point in their careers, according to an AMA report (PDF) that analyzed claims frequency. A survey released last year painted an even more dire picture with over half of U.S. doctors saying they have faced a malpractice lawsuit.

RELATED: More than half of U.S. doctors have faced malpractice lawsuits, survey finds

Since older physicians have been in practice longer and have more exposure, nearly half (49.2%) of physicians age 55 and over have been sued. That compares to 8.2% of physicians under age 40, the AMA report said.

The likelihood of a lawsuit varies among specialties. General surgeons and obstetricians/gynecologists have the highest risk of being sued, more than three-and-a-half to four times greater than pediatricians and psychiatrists, who have the lowest risk, the report said. Before they reach 55, more than 50% of general surgeons and ob/gyns have faced a lawsuit.

RELATED: The top 5 reasons for malpractice lawsuits against doctors

The vast majority of claims are dropped, dismissed or withdrawn, Barbe said, but the litigious climate takes a financial toll on the healthcare system.

A second report (PDF) looked at indemnity payments, expenses and claim disposition from 2006 to 2015 aggregated by PIAA, a trade association representing the medical and healthcare professional liability insurance community. The report showed rising costs. The average expense incurred on medical liability claims that closed in 2015 was $54,165, an increase of 64.5% since 2006.

A third AMA report (PDF) looked at changes in medical liability insurance premiums from 2008 to 2017. While costs for liability premiums stabilized, there was a wide geographic variation in what doctors pay for coverage, the report found.

The AMA said it is working with state and specialty medical associations and other stakeholders to come up with medical liability reforms that balance the needs of patients who have been harmed and the need to control healthcare costs.

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