Oncologists in Malpractice Suits: Less Than Other Specialties

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

February 04, 2022

Oncologists were less likely than many other specialists to be named in malpractice suits during 2021, notes the latest Medscape Malpractice Report.

Over a third (39%) of oncologists who were surveyed said that they had been named in at least one malpractice suit, according to the Medscape Oncologist Malpractice Report 2021.

This number is considerably lower than that reported by physicians across all specialties (51%), and it is also much lower than that reported by oncologists in past years. In the 2019 report, 54% of oncologists surveyed said they had been named in a malpractice suit, while in the 2017 report, the figure was 53%.

The dramatic decline in malpractice suits may have much to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, when oncology care was in a state of flux.

"Fewer people were seeking cancer care during the COVID pandemic, which might have impacted the number of lawsuits brought against oncologists," says Paul Walker, a New York City–based malpractice attorney at Walker Medical Law, who represents physicians and other healthcare professionals.

"Additionally, a fair number of people who died of COVID were also older," he pointed out, and it is often older people who get cancer, so there were fewer older people who consulted an oncologist or were treated by one, he added.

However, the pandemic may be storing up trouble for future years. "Patient fears of contracting COVID-19 have led many to avoid seeking or resuming care, so delays in diagnosing new cancer cases could mean that more patients are diagnosed at a later stage of their disease, leading to potential adverse events and malpractice claims," commented David L. Feldman, MD, MBA, chief medical officer of The Doctors Company Group.

This latest 2021 Medscape Malpractice Report was compiled from an online survey that included more than 4300 physicians from 29 specialties. It included 106 oncologists. More than half of respondents (56%) had been in practice for more than 25 years, and 54% were aged 60 years or older. The survey was available from May 21 to August 28, 2021.

Similar to findings in previous years, complications from treatment/surgery were the most common reason for the lawsuits (31%). Failure to make a correct diagnosis or a delay in diagnosis was the second most common reason (23%), while 20% of patients sued because of a poor outcome or disease progression.

Surprise at Being Sued

Among the oncologists who reported involvement in a lawsuit in 2021, the majority (86%) said they were "very surprised" or "somewhat surprised" by the malpractice suit, which is similar to that of other physicians surveyed. However, fewer were surprised this year as compared to 2019 and 2017 (90% and 94%).

One reason for the surprise over the litigation was that it concerned a patient who had been treated a long time ago. One oncologist wrote that "the patient had not seen me for over 7 years and during that time, he did not call me with his new symptomatology. I was only named in the suit because I had previously been involved."

Another common scenario reported by oncologists was being named in a lawsuit which was brought by another clinician's patient. "I was the chairperson of the department, and one of the doctors in the practice was involved in the suit," wrote one respondent. "I was named as an accomplice."

More than half of surveyed oncologists said that they were able to identify the patient who bought the suit, and these figures are again comparable to those of other physicians. One oncologist commented that in the case he was involved with, the family did not understand or accept the nature of cancer and the different ways that a patient could die of complications. This patient had died of sepsis and pneumonia related to decubitus ulcers that were completely unrelated to her radiation therapy.

As in the case above, sometimes it is the family who filed the lawsuit, not the patient.

"The patient may even recognize that you did your best and be grateful for your skill and efforts, but the family can't accept that grandma died of cancer and brings a lawsuit," said Dennis Hursh, an attorney with Physicians Agreement Health Law in Pennsylvania.

When looking at outcomes of the lawsuit, 40% of oncologists were dismissed from the suit within the first few months, or the case was settled before going to trial. This trend is also consistent with the results from the 2019 and 2017 surveys. When the case did go to trial, 10% received a favorable verdict, which was the same in 2019.

"It seems that most of my clients end up being released from lawsuits, and many lawsuits are dismissed prior to proceeding to trial," Hursh commented.

Murdering Psychopath

Some oncologists weighed in on what they felt was the worst experience of being sued.

"Mental anguish, knowing that I did nothing wrong," said one physician. Another reported that it was a feeling of being "inadequate and totally alone."

Another oncologist commented that the "depositions from lawyers implied that I was worse than a murdering psychopath. My reputation was permanently damaged."

However, the vast majority of oncologists (88%) did not believe that the lawsuit negatively affected their career, which was similar to physicians in general. That said, many did complain about the ongoing requirement to report the lawsuit to the credentialing committee, even if it was dismissed, and then having to pay increased malpractice premiums. "I still need to document this episode every single time I apply for any medical position, even more than 29 years after I was dismissed from the case," said one respondent.

When asked if they would do anything differently, many oncologists (42%) said no, they would not have done anything differently. This is similar to the responses from physicians in general and with 2019 responses from oncologists. However, 15% of the respondents said that in retrospect, they would not have taken on that patient to begin with.

Some oncologists noted that they would have been more conscientious in relaying the information to the referring physician. Evan Lyman, an associate attorney at Voute, Lohrfink, McAndrew, Meisner & Roberts, LLP, in White Plains, New York, pointed out that a common reason for lawsuits is a slip-up of communication between the specialist and the referring physician.

Oncologists who had been sued have some insights to offer to colleagues, should they find themselves in a similar situation.

"Only answer with short and precise statements," wrote one oncologist. "Attend all the depositions as much as you can; they are more likely to fabricate or exaggerate if you are not sitting in the room."

Another physician said to base "everything on the medical record and do not answer hypothetical questions."

"Document all interactions with patients as if a jury will be reading them, word by word," said one respondent.

As for the public or patients, oncologists had this message: "malpractice suits should be rarely launched and only when gross errors can be absolutely proven."

Another oncologist pointed out that communication is key. "Speak to the physicians against whom you have distrust. Lots of things could be cleared by good communication."

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