A radiologist in Virginia had an alleged malpractice case against him dismissed.
Data and evidence rule the majority of medical malpractice suits.
There’s no guaranteed way to prevent being sued for medical malpractice, but you can reduce the likelihood by clearly communicating with patients and improving documentation methods.
A recent $ 10-million-dollar alleged malpractice case has been dismissed in Virginia. It centered on a 2015 CT scan. The malpractice suit alleged that a radiologist missed abnormalities on a CT scan that pointed to an aortic aneurysm, from which his patient, Carl Henderson Jr., of Fisherville, Virginia, died five days later.
Henderson underwent a CT scan when he visited the emergency room. He was diagnosed with a musculoskeletal injury and discharged from the hospital at the time. Thomas Zumsteg, MD, the radiologist sued by Henderson’s estate, stated that there were no signs on Mr. Henderson’s scan indicating any aortic dissection, and no errors were made. A jury agreed on April 13, 2023, and the case was dismissed.
Outcomes of medical malpractice lawsuits
The jury ruled in Zumsteg’s favor, but it’s no secret that a malpractice lawsuit is stressful, time-consuming, and expensive. While no physician wants to face a medical malpractice lawsuit, a survey conducted by the American Medical Association found that more than a third of all physicians have been sued for malpractice during their careers. Factors such as specialty can make a big difference in the likelihood of getting sued.
More than 60% of obstetrician-gynecologists were sued at some point during their career, compared to just 16% of psychiatrists.
These might sound like alarming numbers, but most cases never make it to trial. In 2015, nearly seventy percent of malpractice suits were withdrawn, dropped, or dismissed. When cases go to trial, outcomes aren’t perfect, but they often find the truth.
“The question always becomes, ‘How often when somebody brings a malpractice case, is there actually malpractice?’ You would presume the system, if it works, would identify those things,” says David L. Feldman, MD, who serves as the Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Healthcare Risk Advisors (a New York City–based group offering professional liability insurance to physicians) and as Chief Medical Officer of The Doctors Company, the nation’s largest physician-owned medical malpractice insurer. “It turns out it doesn’t work so well, but it probably works better than many doctors might think.”
Feldman says that in data gathered and reviewed for accuracy across approximately 1,500 malpractice lawsuits, the cases were decided the way they should have been the majority of the time.
“It turns out 63% of the claims had an error, 37% didn’t. Okay, right now, if the system works, you would expect that the patient got paid. A judgment was made when an error was made. And that turns out to be true 75% of the time,” Feldman says. “The reverse, you’d also expect [to be true]. If there was no error, there shouldn’t be any payment made. And sure enough, there was no payment made in three-quarters of [the cases]. So it works well most of the time.”
Preventing medical malpractice lawsuits
There’s no way to predict the future or guarantee the prevention of all malpractice cases, but there are ways to reduce the odds of being sued.
“I call it the ‘three Ps,” says Feldman. “It’s an easy way to understand reducing malpractice risks. [The first ‘P’ is ‘prevention.’] There’s not likely to be any malpractice if you can prevent adverse events. That just makes sense. But we can’t always do that.”
Of course, adverse events don’t always involve someone at fault. Often, adverse events are side effects or the results of complications. Feldman says this is where the second ‘P’ becomes especially important.
“It’s how we preclude malpractice in the face of an adverse event. [It’s] really about communication. It’s the relationship that physicians have with patients before, during, and after an encounter,” Feldman says. “That’s the communication piece. When we fail at that, even if a patient has a known complication, they feel like they need to get answers, and they bring a lawsuit.”
However, not all physicians can build these relationships and spend time on extended communication with their patients.
Those specializing in radiology and pathology, for example, very rarely interact with patients, and other specialists, such as emergency medicine physicians, only interact with their patients for a few hours during a single visit. Feldman has advice for these physicians, too; it falls under his third ‘P’: prevail.
“How do you prevail when there is a lawsuit you can’t preclude? Documentation,” says Feldman. “Patient safety [too], and it’s really about preventing adverse events, improving communication, [and] improving documentation.”Related: Common misconceptions about medical malpractice