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

If you’re a doctor practicing medicine in the U.S., there’s a good chance you will face a lawsuit during your career.

A majority (55%) of U.S. physicians said they have been sued, according to Medscape’s physician malpractice report for 2017. Among the doctors who had been sued, more than half faced more than one lawsuit.

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The report was based on a survey of 4,000 doctors across more than 25 specialties. The 2017 survey found a 15% increase in malpractice suits since Medscape's last report was published in 2013.

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The following are some of the other survey findings:

  • Specialists, particularly surgeons (85%) and obstetrician/gynecologists (85%), were far more likely to be sued than primary care doctors. Psychiatrists (29%) and dermatologists (28%) were the specialties least named in lawsuits.
  • Malpractice insurance premiums vary based on those specialties. Premiums paid by doctors in New York City ranged from upwards of $200,000 per year for an obstetrician/gynecologist to about $38,000 for an internist.
  • The top three reasons why patients filed suit were failure to diagnose a patient’s condition or a delayed diagnosis (31%), complications arising from treatment or surgery (27%) and poor outcome/disease progression (24%).  
  • Lawsuits also caught doctors off-guard, as 58% said they were surprised when named in a lawsuit. An overwhelming majority (89%) said the lawsuit was unwarranted. Thirty percent of doctors said their lawsuit was settled before trial.
  • Monetary payouts can be substantial. Some 68% of doctors said plaintiffs received up to $500,000 and 17% reported plaintiffs received up to $1 million. 

To avoid a lawsuit in the first place, Rick Boothman, chief risk officer at the University of Michigan Health System and a malpractice defense attorney, suggested that physicians demonstrate to patients and their family that they care.

For example, after a poor outcome, don’t avoid a patient or his or her family. A sincere apology also goes a long way.