Malpractice Risk According to Physician Specialty

Study Questions:

What are the proportion of physicians who face malpractice claims in a year, the size of those claims, and the cumulative career malpractice risk according to specialty?


The authors analyzed malpractice data from 1991 through 2005 for all physicians who were covered by a large professional liability insurer with a nationwide client base (40,916 physicians and 233,738 physician-years of coverage). For 25 specialties, the analysis included the proportion of physicians who had malpractice claims in a year, the proportion of claims leading to an indemnity payment (compensation paid to a plaintiff), and the size of indemnity payments. An estimated cumulative risk of ever being sued was determined among physicians in high- and low-risk specialties.


Each year during the study period, 7.4% of all physicians had a malpractice claim, with 1.6% having a claim leading to a payment (i.e.,78% of all claims did not result in payments to claimants). The proportion of physicians facing a claim each year ranged from 19.1% in neurosurgery, 18.9% in thoracic–cardiovascular surgery, and 15.3% in general surgery to 5.2% in family medicine, 3.1% in pediatrics, and 2.6% in psychiatry. The mean indemnity payment was $274,887, and the median was $111,749. Mean payments ranged from $117,832 for dermatology to $520,923 for pediatrics. It was estimated that by the age of 65 years, 75% of physicians in low-risk specialties had faced a malpractice claim, as compared with 99% of physicians in high-risk specialties.


The authors concluded that there is substantial variation in the likelihood of malpractice suits and the size of indemnity payments across specialties. The cumulative risk of facing a malpractice claim is high in all specialties, although most claims do not lead to payments to plaintiffs.


I have no argument with the need for malpractice rewards in the setting of negligence, failure to meet a standard of care, or misconduct by health care and other professionals. This article is sobering reading for practicing physicians. Each year, about 8% of cardiologists and nearly 20% of cardiovascular surgeons will have a claim against them. Although the profile of the claimant was not described, with one in five patients likely to file a malpractice claim, it’s a wonder that cardiovascular surgeons are willing to take on high-risk patients. While the survey describes the financial implications of malpractice, there was no evaluation of the intangibles including time required to defend oneself, personal and family stress, the affront of baseless claims, and real or perceived damage to reputations.

Keywords: Physicians, Malpractice

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