Malpractice Risk By Specialty

Just how big a risk is physician malpractice (in the US)? A large database study covering nearly 41,000 physicians over a 15 year period was analyzed for claims frequency and payout information. They looked at how many physicians in each specialty faced a claim in a given year, whether a payment was made, and calculated the cumulative career malpractice risk for each specialty.

Here are the factoids:

  • The highest risk specialties were neurosurgery, CV surgery, general surgery, orthopedic surgery, and plastic surgery. Here is the breakdown of percent claims and percent claims with payout to the plaintiff in any given year:
    • Neurosurgery 19% – 2.5%
    • CV surgery 19% – 3%
    • Gen surg 15% – 3%
    • Orthopedics – 14% – 3%
    • Plastics – 13% – 2.5%
  • The lowest risk specialties were dermatology, family practice, other, pediatrics, and psychiatry. The breakdown of claims and claims with plaintiff payout is as follows:
    • Derm 5% – 1%
    • Family practice 5% – 1%
    • Other 4% – 1%
    • Peds 3% – 0.5%
    • Psych 2.5% – 0.5%
  • The overall annual risk of being sued in a high-risk specialty was 16%, and of paying money to a plaintiff (losing the case) was 4% 
  • The overall annual risk of being sued in a low-risk specialty was 7%, and of paying money to a plaintiff was 1.5%
  • Median payouts were as follows:
    • Neurosurgery $215K
    • General surgery $180K
    • Orthopedics $100K
    • Anesthesia $90K
    • Emergency medicine $80K
    • Plastics $60K
  • The cumulative career risk of a claim was 99% for high-risk specialties and 75% in low-risk ones
  • The cumulative career risk of having to pay a plaintiff in high-risk specialties was 33% vs 5% for low-risk

Bottom line: This data is old (10-15 years) but you get the picture. Most physicians, especially those who happen to take care of trauma patients, will definitely get sued in their lifetime. Any many will end up losing a suit. But this is not necessarily because they are taking care of trauma patients, only because of the specialty they ultimately chose.

Reference: Malpractice risk according to physician specialty. NEJM 365;7 629-636, Aug 18,  2011.

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