Everyone makes mistakes, including doctors. In fact, especially doctors. A recent Johns Hopkins study reports that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States. How many of these errors result in lawsuits? In this article, we'll review how often doctors get sued, the most common reasons doctors get sued, which specialties are at most risk, and how you can prepare for and avoid malpractice lawsuits.

How Often Do Doctors Get Sued?

According to a 2016 report by the American Medical Association, 1 out of every 3 physicians (34%) will be sued at some point in their career. Sixteen (16.8%) percent of physicians will be sued twice throughout their career. That said, these blanket statements don't account for some very important nuance in the data. According to a study from the New England Journal of Medicine, just 1% of all physicians are responsible for over 32% of malpractice lawsuits. There is no doubt this is correlated to the type of doctor himself. A neurosurgeon manages a significant more amount of risk than a family doctor, which would result in an outsized percentage of lawsuits. We will review how often doctors get sued by medical specialty in the next section.

Another nuance within the statement that "34% of physicians will be sued" relates to the stage the doctor is in in his or her career. If you've been practicing for 40 years, your chances of being sued are greater than an attending physician who has been practicing 2 years. The 2016 AMA report says that 8.2% of physicians under the age of 40 have been sued, but almost 50% of physicians over the age of 54 have been sued.

The third nuance to consider when answering the question how often doctors get sued is the doctor's gender. In short, male doctors are far more likely to get sued than their female counterpoints. The data shows us that almost 40% of male doctors have been sued, but only 22.8% of female doctors have been sued (data pulled from the 2016 AMA report). There are a number of reasons why female physicians are less likely to get sued than male physicians, such as differences in age and specialty. The first one is age although this appears to be based on shaky evidence. At the time of the survey, the female physicians who answered the questions were younger than the male physicians, therefore reporting few lawsuits. However the second reason for the gender disparity is medical specialty. Women in general tend to practice lower risk specialties, thus making lawsuits a less likely hazard of the job.

Why do Doctors get Sued?

Now that we have broken down how often doctors get sued, which depends on a number of factors, let's review why doctors get sued. Here are the most common reasons for medical malpractice lawsuits:

Delayed or No Diagnosis

Delayed or no diagnosis malpractice lawsuits mean that a patient with an illness or injury was seeing a doctor but the doctor failed to diagnosis the patient or delayed diagnosing the patient, until it was too late. If the patient can prove that health signs were there, and the doctor didn't notice them or inquire, then it could be grounds for a malpractice lawsuit.

Improper Treatment

Improper treatment is another common reason for a successful medical malpractice lawsuit against a physician. This is when a patient shows signs of an illness or injury, but the doctor prescribes improper treatment. A crude example is if a patient broke their arm and the doctor prescribed painkillers but didn't set the bone or instruct the patient wear a cast or sling. If that arm were to get worse, or if it failed to heal, that would be grounds for a lawsuit against the doctor for failing to treat the patient.

Negligent Care

Negligent care is a little bit of a catch-all. If the patient can prove in the eyes of a court that a doctor did not practice medicine in the way that was "standard industry care," then they could have a negligent care lawsuit on their hands.

Which Medical Specialty Is Most At Risk of Being Sued?

There are certain specialties that face lawsuits more than others. More advanced specialties that require more training find they are sued more often than those in general practice. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the percentages of physicians that face a claim each year include:

  • Neurosurgery: 19.1%
  • Thoracic–Cardiovascular Surgery: 18.9%
  • General Surgery: 15.3%
  • Family Medicine: 5.2%
  • Pediatrics: 3.1%
  • Psychiatry: 2.6%

Surgeons, who are among those most susceptible to burnout, face much more complex medical decisions, and the very nature of their job involves risk so they unsurprisingly face more lawsuits than any other kind of physician.

Percentage of Lawsuits That Settle and For How Much

The New England Journal of Medicine analyzed malpractice data from 1991 through 2005 for over 40,000 physicians. Each year during the study period, 7.4% of physicians had a malpractice claim, with only 1.6% having a claim leading to a payment. In other words, 78% of claims did not result in a settlement of any kind for the patient. For those who did receive payment, the mean payout was $274,887 and the median was $111,749.

In another article titled Medical Malpractice Payouts by State, we reported that New York had the highest medical malpractice payout cumulatively from 1990 to 2020 at $25.6 billion. Wyoming had the lowest during that time period, at $200,260,000. As you can imagine, these figures are highly correlated to population in the respective state. The largest single payout in a malpractice lawsuit took place in Maryland in 2019. A jury awarded Erica Byrom a $229 million malpractice verdict after her daughter suffered a brain injury at birth at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in 2014. A Baltimore judge upheld a $205 million verdict due to a state cap. Doctors at the hospital had given Byrom inaccurate information about her unborn baby in 2014 and told her that she could terminate the pregnancy and gave her the indication that the baby was non-viable. She declined a cesarean section and medical staff stopped monitoring the fetus, which resulted in the baby not getting enough oxygen to her brain. The child now has cerebral palsy and is mentally and physically disabled and will require life-long dependent and medical care.

What To Do Once You've Been Sued?

All doctors are required to purchase medical malpractice insurance, so that is your first line of defense as an attending physician. In the event that you do get sued, don’t panic, it happens even to the best doctors. Instead, make the following moves.

Contact your insurance company

One of your first steps if you’ve just found out you’ve been sued is to contact your malpractice insurance company. They’ll be able to tell you if your lawsuit will be covered under your insurance policy and they can likely direct you to any legal counsel you might need. Certain insurance companies will even provide you with one of their in-house lawyers.

Work with your lawyer

The process of your lawsuit will vary depending on what you’re being sued for. Your lawyer can help you understand what’s going to happen next and what you need to provide. Once your suit begins, your lawyer will take the reins and make sure you’re kept up-to-date on the process.

Prepare your finances

Depending on the severity of your lawsuit, you may be asked to temporarily stop working. Or worse, your medical license may be revoked entirely. While this isn’t often the case, you should consider getting your finances in order in the event that you have to cease working without pay for a period of time. Legal battles can last for years so it’s beneficial for physicians to always have an emergency fund in place. Thankfully, a well-rounded medical malpractice policy should be able to compensate you.

Focus on reducing your stress

Legal struggles can do a number on your stress levels. While many suits don’t end up with claims being paid out, knowing you caused someone undue harm can be tough to deal with. Remember that, if you do remain employed, you have a duty to your patients to give them the best care possible. Consider meeting with a mental health professional if necessary, and make sure to communicate with your peers and higher-ups so they know how they can help.

Reducing the Risk of a Malpractice Lawsuit

Improve your diagnostic skills

One of the leading reasons patients sue doctors is a lack of or a late diagnosis. This lack of diagnosis is often accompanied by large hospital bills and severe medical consequences, including death. Whether you take on extra educational courses or work more closely with your peers and supervisors, take the time to practice your diagnostic skills. This can help ensure you aren’t missing anything when it comes to the health of your patients.

Learn to better understand your patients

When a patient comes to see you, they could be dealing with some serious health concerns. Even if they’re just there for minor issues, your patients may have a difficult time emotionally. You’re the one they’re looking to for answers, so they want to feel heard. All doctors should understand how to be compassionate and empathetic towards their patients. Speak to patients like they’re people, take time to ask questions, and listen when they have concerns.

Document everything

When you go through a lawsuit, you’ll be asked to supply the court with an abundance of evidence so each side can understand exactly what happened. Documenting every move you make with your patients can seem burdensome, but it’s important. It’s what’s going to help keep you out of a “he-said, “she-said” situation where it’s your word against your patient’s.

Combat burnout

Exhaustion can often lead to mistakes. Burnout culture is a very real issue for many physicians, but there are a couple of action steps you can take to reduce your risk of burnout. Start by being honest with your supervisors and explain the workload you can realistically take on. Everyone needs a good work/life balance, don’t be afraid to take time for yourself when you need it. In addition, simply recognizing the signs of burnout can help you combat it. Once you start to recognize that you’re stressed or you can’t sleep or you’ve been quick to anger, connect with your administrator and see what the next steps may be.

Christopher Murray - Writer

Christopher Murray received a B.A. in English Literature and Gender Studies from Smith College. He now lives in Maine with his husband where he spends his free time watching reruns of The X-Files and dreaming of traveling in a refurbished VW Bus while writing the next Great American Novel. Chris has extensive writing and editing experience across a range of industries, but with a specialty in personal finance and investing.

Malpractice InsurancePublished April 22, 2022