Malpractice and Medicine: Who Gets Sued and Why?

Carol Peckham


December 08, 2015

In This Article

What Physicians Learned by Being Sued

Over half (51%) of physicians who reported being sued said that they used standard of care and would not have changed a thing. Nineteen percent would have used better documentation. Almost a tenth of respondents (9%) believed that they could have communicated more carefully, and 6% would have spent more time with patients or their families. On the flip side, 8% would have tested more aggressively to cover themselves, and 12% wouldn't have taken on such patients. There were no large percentage differences between men and women in these responses.

Physician respondents gave these key points of advice for other doctors:

  • Document, document, document;

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare;

  • Get good legal advice early and listen to it;

  • Be sure that your actions are well thought out and your defense reasoned;

  • Keep your cool and tell the truth;

  • Share only what you can remember or document;

  • You can never win at a deposition, but you can lose the case;

  • Be patient, be likeable;

  • Join a support group; and

  • If your only concern is the welfare of your patients, it is unlikely you will be sued, and if you are sued, it is unlikely you will lose.

Many physicians also said that they would be more aggressive in caring for their patients themselves and not rely on other staff or colleagues. A number of respondents emphasized the importance of telling the truth. One doctor wrote, "It is a very bizarre situation. Each word that you say has to be measured and thought about, and it is a very strange way to have a conversation with someone."

Defensive Medicine

Among the verbal responses to this survey, when talking about avoiding future lawsuits or long-term effects, no respondents who had been sued said that they would test less, and many now test more. In a Medscape article, Marc Siegel, MD, said, "It isn't just fear of lawsuits that drives testing." He added, "There's a philosophy of practice that encourages defensive medicine. It's part of the culture of not wanting to miss anything and not being criticized for not covering all the bases."[8]

Suing Other Physicians

Three quarters or more of physicians who answered this survey would not sue another doctor, even if the damages were caused by physician error. Some specialists were more likely to sue than others. About a quarter of oncologists, anesthesiologists, and radiologists would make a charge against a colleague, while only 15% of ob/gyns (the most commonly sued specialists) and 17% of PCPs would launch such a case.

Most physicians have sympathy for colleagues who are sued, even in cases that involve actual errors. Nearly two thirds said that errors were rare and should not be used to give doctors a bad name (62%) or that doctors are human and sometimes make mistakes (64%). Still, 41% admitted that some doctors were negligent and incompetent. (Respondents were allowed to choose as many options as they thought relevant.)


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