Physicians Still Fear Malpractice Suits, Despite Actual Risk

December 16, 2010

Physicians continue to worry about malpractice lawsuits, despite their actual risk of being sued, a new study found. It suggested that recent tort reform legislation aimed at controlling healthcare costs haven't eased doctors concerns about the threat of being sued.

Physicians continue to worry about the threat of malpractice suits, despite their actual risk of being sued, according to a recent study. Recent tort reform legislation aimed at controlling malpractice insurance costs haven't eased doctors concerns about the threat of being sued. The study was published in the journal Health Affairs.

"We found that both generalist and specialist physicians fear being sued for malpractice even in states where their risk of being sued is relatively low," senior study author David Katz, M.D., associate professor of medicine with University of Iowa Health Care, said in a statement. "One likely explanation is that physicians' concerns about malpractice are driven more by their perception that the malpractice tort process is unfair and arbitrary and less by their actual risk of getting sued."

The research team found physicians were highly concerned about being sued, regardless of specialty or geographic location. Surprisingly, doctors in states that are at the highest-risk for malpractice suits -- including New York, California, Florida and Texas -- were only modestly more concerned about being sued than those in low-risk states. Physicians in the least-risky states have less than one-third of the malpractice risk as those in the most risky states, the researchers said.

"The high levels of malpractice concern, even among physicians in relatively low-risk environments, is striking," Katz said. "One possible explanation is that most physicians do not have the information to accurately access their actual risk of being sued."

The study suggested that several types of state tort reforms, such as caps on total damages, are individually associated with significantly reduced malpractice concerns, but the results were mixed. Overall, the study suggested that current tort reform efforts aimed at reducing malpractice risk would be relatively ineffective in alleviating physicians' concern about lawsuits and therefore may not alter defensive medicine practices.