Fear of a malpractice suit affects physicians’ medical decisions, survey says

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published March 30, 2018

Key Takeaways

Four of five physicians say they’ve thought that the risk of lawsuits influenced their medical decisions, although fewer than half of physicians have ever been involved in a malpractice suit, according to an MDLinx.com survey.

As many as one in six physicians (17.3%) said they always feel that the threat of a lawsuit impacts their medical decision-making. More than one in four (26.2%) said they often feel this way, and more than one third (36.5%) said they feel this way at least occasionally.

This nationwide survey, conducted by M3 Global Research in August 2017, received responses from 1,150 physicians, including primary care physicians and many different specialists.

Few docs go to trial

The survey asked physicians about their experience with malpractice lawsuits in which they (or their clinic or employer) were involved as defendants. Ten percent of physicians surveyed said they’d been involved in one or more lawsuits that went to trial and ended in a decision by a judge or jury.

Another 6.6% of survey respondents had gone to trial, but the suit ended with a court-amicable settlement, while 12.6% never went to trial and settled out of court. Approximately the same number, 13%, were required to preserve evidence or disclose medical records but were not named as defendants in a suit. About 7.7% of physicians have been the subject of allegations by patients or family members but were not required to preserve evidence or disclose medical records. 

More than half (56.2%) of respondents said they’d never experienced any of these legal actions. (The total of these percentages adds up to more than 100% because respondents could choose more than one response, if applicable.)

Claims down, but payments up

Physicians who practice in fear of a lawsuit may be relieved to know that the rate of malpractice claims paid by physicians, or on their behalf, declined by 55.7% in the United States in the past 20 years or so, according to a 2017 article in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Then again, the mean payment increased by 23.3% (adjusted for inflation), researchers found. One possible reason for this increase: Plaintiffs’ attorneys may be avoiding more cases with smaller potential awards because of the risk of loss or the administrative costs of bringing such a claim.

Another potential reason: “Smaller claims may also be settled earlier and outside of the written claims process, thereby leaving only the larger claims in the database,” the authors speculated.

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