New malpractice trends: What doctors should know

By Matt Kuhrt

Nobody wants to think about medical malpractice, but it's impossible not to. With every piece of healthcare legislation, doctors see increased liability risks. For every drive to reduce expenditures associated with unnecessary testing, there's a concomitant stripping away of a potential defense against lawsuits.

A new survey from Medscape offers some hard data about why doctors get sued, helping to put the fears and risks around malpractice litigation into perspective.

More than half the physicians who responded had been sued, with surgeons and ob/gyn specialists most likely to be hit by lawsuits. The vast majority of the suits centered around either a failure to diagnose or some type of abnormal injury to the patient. Older doctors were more likely to have experienced a lawsuit, though it's unclear whether this stems from age or the amount of time spent in practice.

Despite these statistics, physicians don't appear to think a lawsuit will happen to them--until it does. According to the survey, 70 percent of those who were sued reported that it came as a complete surprise. But among those who had been sued, more than half indicated that their concern over a potential lawsuit affected their interactions with most or all of their current patients.

If these lawsuits are changing the way doctors practice, though, the incentives may not be well aligned. The majority of suits never make it to trial, and of those reported in the survey, only 16 percent even reached a verdict. A mere 3 percent reached a verdict in the plaintiff's favor.

Moreover, when asked what they would do differently, the majority of respondents said they used the proper standard of care and would not have changed anything. The next most common answers involved documenting treatment better, better communication with the patient or refusing to take the patient in the first place.

To learn more:
- check out the Medscape survey