About 31% of U.S. physicians have received a medical liability claim during their careers, though the percentage of physicians reporting they had been sued in the previous year dipped slightly during the course of the pandemic, according to recently shared American Medical Association (AMA) survey data.
The group’s poll suggests physicians’ short-term risk of having a claim filed against them is “relatively low” but increases over time.
Of note, only 9.5% of physicians under the age of 40 said they have ever been sued as opposed to 46.8% of those 55 and older, according to the AMA. The younger cohort also reported receiving 11 career claims per 100 responding physicians, whereas the older group reported 100 career claims per 100 responding physicians, AMA found.
“It seems to be just a matter of time, or more specifically, of longer exposure before a physician is sued,” José R. Guardado, a senior economist for the AMA, wrote in a report on the findings (PDF).
Additionally, the frequency of reported claims changed across physicians’ gender and specialty.
Specifically, the risk of a medical liability lawsuit was higher for physicians who were men as opposed to women (36.8% sued in their career to date versus 23.8%). Surgical specialties such as obstetricians/gynecologists (62.4% sued in career to date) and general surgeons (59.3%) more often reported being sued, with internal medicine subspecialties such as allergists/immunologists (7.1%) and hematologists/oncologists (8%) on the other end of the spectrum.
"There are plausible reasons why some physicians have higher claim frequency than others, such as some specialties being inherently riskier, and more years in practice translating into longer exposure to risk,” Guardado wrote. “However, questions remain, such as why women physicians are at lower risk than men, even after controlling for the other observable factors.”
AMA’s Benchmark Survey is fielded every other year. For this analysis on medical liability claims, Guardado used relevant responses from 3,500 physicians collected in 2016, 2018, 2020 and 2022—14,000 observations total.
Alongside the characteristic trends, the survey found just 1.8% of physicians in 2022 reporting that they had been sued in the previous year, down from 2.1% in 2020 and 2.4% in 2018. Guardado wrote that the reduction in 2020 “may be at least partially explained by lower exposure to risk due to a decrease in the utilization of services provided during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The AMA’s report differs from many prior studies of medical liability claim frequency, which primarily rely on the National Practitioner Databank. That data source excludes 72% of claims in which no indemnity payment was made, however, and “thus misses a significant number of claims,” Guardado wrote.
In an accompanying release, AMA President Jack Resneck Jr., M.D., said these frequent dead-end claim filings and his organization's latest findings show that “getting sued is not indicative of medical errors.”
“All medical care comes with risks, yet physicians are willing to perform high-risk procedures that offer hope of relief from debilitating symptoms or life-threatening conditions,” he said in the release. “When physicians are sued, two-thirds of civil liability claims are dropped, dismissed or withdrawn without a finding of fault. When claims proceed to trial and are decided by a verdict, the defendants prevail in nearly 9 out 10 cases.”
AMA noted in the release that the “heavy cost associated with a litigious climate” has led it to advocate for “medical liability reforms that strike a reasonable balance” between the needs of harmed patients and physicians.