Lawsuits: Most Doctors Say There Was No Trigger Event


November 15, 2017

In This Article

A Lawsuit Can Turn a Physician's Life Upside Down

If you know that a medical error or bad outcome has occurred, you may be somewhat expecting to hear from a lawyer—or at the very least, from an unhappy patient who wants you to "do something."

Yet most malpractice lawsuits come as a jolting and unpleasant surprise. More than three quarters (87%) of physicians sued were either very or somewhat surprised by the action, and almost one half (49%) of all physicians sued said there was no identifiable trigger event that would have alerted them to know that a lawsuit might be coming.

That's one of the insights from Medscape's Malpractice Report 2017, the result of a survey in which more than 4000 physicians told about their lawsuit and court experiences, and how it affected their lives and their relationships with patients. The report also reveals physicians' thoughts about how the case affected their reputation, what they might in hindsight do differently now, and what advice they have for other physicians.

Is the malpractice situation in the United States getting better or worse? And what do physicians who were sued have to say about whether their lawsuit was fair and what they should have done differently?

Some key findings of the report include:

  • The frequency of malpractice lawsuits is fairly steady, with a slight decrease. In Medscape's 2015 Malpractice Report, 59% of respondents reported getting sued. However, in 2017, more than one half of physicians (55%) responding had been named in a lawsuit. Of those, 13% of physicians said they were the only person named in the lawsuit; 48% said they were among several people sued.

  • Most physicians are surprised to be sued. Among doctors who were sued, 58% were very surprised and 29% were somewhat surprised. Almost one half (49%) of physicians said there was no trigger incident that would have alerted them to expect a suit. Over one third (35%) said there was such an incident, whereas 16% said they didn't recall the circumstance. Fully 89% of physicians said they felt the lawsuit was unwarranted.

  • Being sued often affects physicians' relationships with their patients. More than one half of physicians (51%) sued said that after the lawsuit, their attitudes or behaviors changed. More than one quarter (26%) said that they no longer trust patients and now treat them differently; 6% left their practice setting, and 3% changed insurers.

  • The five most sued specialists are surgeons (85%), obstetricians/gynecologists (85%), otolaryngologists (78%), urologists (77%), and orthopedists (76%). Least likely to be sued are pediatricians (42%), physical medicine and rehabilitation physicians (37%), nephrologists (33%), psychiatrists (29%), and dermatologists (28%).

  • Failure to diagnose/delayed diagnosis (31%) and complications of treatment/surgery (27%) were the predominant reasons for lawsuits among all physicians sued. Next was poor outcome/disease progression (24%) and failure to treat/delayed treatment (17%).


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