Most Doctors Will Face Malpractice Suit, AMA Says

WASHINGTON -- More than 60 percent of doctors over the age of 55 have been sued at least once, according to a new survey by the American Medical Association (AMA).

Although most of those claims are dropped or dismissed, the new survey from the AMA shows that most physicians will be sued for malpractice at some point in their careers. This works out to an average of 95 medical malpractice lawsuits having been filed for every 100 physicians now in practice, according to the association.

"This litigious climate hurts patients' access to physician care at a time when the nation is working to reduce unnecessary health care costs," said AMA immediate past president Dr. J. James Rohack in a prepared statement.

VIDEO: Fear of Law Suites May Influence Doctors DecisionsPlay

For the report, AMA surveyed 5,825 physicians from the 2007-2008 Physician Practice Information (PPI) survey, which is used to update the practice cost data to develop practice expense relative value units (RVUs) for the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule. The measure of malpractice claims was determined by survey questions that asked doctors about the number of claims filed against them in their career and over the previous year; the survey did not ask about the outcome of those claims.

While physicians are likely to be subject to a lawsuit at some point in their careers, only about 5 percent of physicians are sued in any given year, the report found.

Certain specialities -- including general surgeons and Ob/Gyns -- were more than five times as likely to be sued compared with pediatricians and psychiatrists, according to the report, which was written by Carol Kane of the AMA. In fact, about half of obstetricians/gynecologists under the age of 40 had already been sued, and 90 percent of surgeons age 55 and older had been sued.

Comparatively, fewer than 30 percent of either pediatricians or psychiatrists were sued, and almost no one in either speciality had had claims filed against them in the previous 12 months.

The report goes on to say that while 65 percent of claims are dropped or dismissed, they are still costly. The average defense costs between $22,000 for dropped or dismissed claims, to more than $100,000 for cases that go to trial, according to data in the report from the Physician Insurers Association of America.

Lawsuits Against Doctors Spark Fear, Incur Costs

"Even though the vast majority of claims are dropped or decided in favor of physicians, the understandable fear of meritless lawsuits can influence what specialty of medicine physicians practice, where they practice and when they retire," Rohack said.

The report also found that men were twice as likely to be sued as women. The report author suggests that the difference might be in part because male physicians are concentrated in the specialities with the highest numbers of claims. In addition, women physicians are generally younger than male physicians, and older doctors are more likely to have been sued at some point in their careers simply because they've been working longer.

Also, the survey found that practice owners and those who work in single-specialty group practices were more likely to be sued than doctors who work in hospitals and multi-specialty group practices, largely because they work in liability claims-heavy specialities. Ob/Gyns are a special case, however: they do tend to practice in solo or single-specialty practices, but unlike other specialties who get sued the most often, the work Ob/Gyns usually are sued over -- childbirth -- is done in the hospital.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) recently awarded $25 million in funding for programs to improve patient safety and lessen the number of malpractice lawsuits filed. The awards include three-year grants of up to $3 million to states and health systems for implementation and evaluation of patient safety and medical liability demonstrations, as well as one-year planning grants of up to $300,000.

The survey was funded by the AMA and more than 40 national medical specialty associations.