Half of Family Physicians Report Being Sued for Malpractice

Marcia Frellick

January 29, 2020

Nearly half (49%) of family physicians who responded to Medscape's latest survey on malpractice said they have been named in at least one lawsuit.

In the Medscape Malpractice Family Physicians Report 2019, 41% said other defendants also were named in the suit, and 11% said they were the only person named.

More than one third (39%) of those sued said their case was settled before trial. Asked whether insurers instructed them to settle, 38% said their insurer encouraged them to settle and 25% said they required it.

When cases did go to trial, a judge ruled for the defendants 10% of the time and for the person who brought the lawsuit (the plaintiff) 2% of the time.

In most family physician cases (42%), claims centered on a failure to diagnose or a delay in diagnosing. In comparison, that reason was cited by 33% of physicians overall. Next most prominent for family physicians was poor outcome or disease progression (22%), followed by failure to treat or delayed treatment (19%) and wrongful death (18%).

For 62%, the lawsuit was "a complete shock." Most said they thought the cases were unwarranted, but 14% were unsure and 7% said they were warranted.

"There's a whole host of what you could call psychological factors that can contribute to the filing of a claim," David S. Szabo, a malpractice defense attorney with Locke Lord LLC in Boston told Medscape Medical News. "These can occur when a patient perceives a breakdown in the doctor-patient relationship, or is pretty certain that there's been a mistake, and they feel like they've been shut out of productive conversation with their healthcare provider or providers."

Defending a lawsuit always takes time in gathering records, meeting with attorneys, and preparing for depositions, and 42% of family physicians who were sued said work on their defense cost them more than 40 hours.

About the same percentage (41%) said the case spanned 1 to 2 years; 27% said less than 1 year; 24% said 3 to 5 years; and 8% said more than 5 years.

When judges ruled for the plaintiff, the award generally maxed out at $500,000. Among cases in which the plaintiff received money, 44% received $100,000 or less and 34% got between $100,000 and $500,000. Six percent of plaintiffs received more than $2 million.

The survey asked physicians what changed after the lawsuit, and nearly half (47%) said nothing changed. Among those who did report change, 23% said they no longer trust their patients or they treat patients differently.

Sixty percent of those who lost their case said they would have done something differently; the top two regrets were wishing they had ordered more tests that would have "covered" them or had better documentation.

Only 1% of physicians said saying "I'm sorry" would have made any difference in the outcome of the lawsuit.

Asked whether medical organizations or state societies were doing enough to discourage lawsuits, 56% of all physicians and 53% of family physicians said no.

Medscape. Published online January 22, 2020. Slideshow

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