Gender, Specialty Play a Part in How Often You're Sued

August 3, 2010
Terri Cullen

A new report by the AMA found that gender, medical specialty and practice ownership all play key roles in how frequently a doctor is sued. One example: Male doctors are twice as likely to be sued than female physicians.

An average of 95 medical liability claims are filed for every 100 physicians, or almost one per physician, according to a new report from the American Medical Association.

The survey found that male doctors were twice as likely to be sued than female physicians: 47.5 percent of men reported they’d never been sued, compared with 23.9 percent of women. The study attributed this disparity to male physicians generally being are older, working more hours, and practicing in specialties with higher claim frequencies. Male doctors are also more likely to be practice owners, which is associated with a greater risk of claims.

The survey were collected from an AMA Physician Practice Information Survey that was fielded in 2007 and 2008, as well as other resources.

In any single year, being sued by a patient is a rare event, the study found. Only 5 percent of physicians had claims filed against them in that time frame. But over the length of a career, claims were much more common. Sixty-one percent of physicians age 55 and older had been sued, with an average of 1.6 claims per doctor.

The type of specialty physicians are in also heavily influences the number of claims filed against them. Just 22.2 percent of psychiatrists were sued, compared with 69.2 percent of surgeons and obstetricians/gynecologists. The study found that half of obstetricians/gynecologists under the age of 40 had already been sued, and 90 percent of surgeons age 55 and older had been sued.

Finally, whether the doctor owns his or her own practice also matters. Physicians who have an ownership interest in a practice are more likely to be sued than those who do not, with 47.5 percent for owners compared to 33.4 percent for employees. Also, physicians in solo and single-specialty practice settings had the highest rates of claim frequency -- about 45 percent had been sued, compared with 37 percent for physicians who provided care in multi-specialty groups, and 40 percent for those in

hospital settings.

Physician tend to prevail in liability cases 90 percent of the time in cases that go to trial, accordingto the AMA. But while 65 percent of claims are dropped or dismissed, the average defense costs per claim range from a low of more than $22,000 compared with a high of more than $100,000 for cases that go to trial.

"Even though the vast majority of claims are dropped or decided in favor of physicians, the understandable fear of meritless lawsuits can influence what specialty of medicine physicians practice, where they practice and when they retire,” said AMA Immediate Past-President J. James Rohack, MD, in a statement. “This litigious climate hurts patients’ access to physician care at a time when the nation is working to reduce unnecessary health care costs.”