Trial Courtroom
A study has found that most medical malpractice lawsuits don't result in a payout. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

A study in New England Journal of Medicine took a look at medical malpractice lawsuits and found that the odds of getting a payout weren’t good. People who file a suit against a doctor have a 20 percent chance of getting paid.

Payout depends on specialty

A recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, according to ABC, contained a study that examined outcomes of medical malpractice suits. The study, according to CBS, looked at data from 41,000 doctors who carried malpractice insurance from a major carrier between 1991 and 2005. The study found the number of suits that resulted in a plaintiff receiving a settlement was 20 percent on average. The average settlement differed between medical specialties. Pediatricians had the highest average settlement, $520,923, and dermatologists had the lowest average payout, $117,832. The average overall settlement was $275,000. The median for all practitioners, including non-specialists, was $111,749, according to the Wall Street Journal. Payouts rarely exceeded $1 million, according to the Los Angeles Times. Of the 66 settlements exceeding $1 million between 1991 and 2005 examined in the study, 11 were suits against an OB/GYN, 10 were against pathologists, seven against pediatricians and seven against anesthesiologists.

Highest risk for surgeons and specialists

Doctors, on average, face a 7.4 percent chance of being sued every year. However, certain medical specialties have a higher risk of a malpractice suit than others, and those in surgical specialties faced the most risk of being sued. Neurosurgeons had the highest annual risk, as 19.1 percent of neurosurgeons were sued per year in the study, according to the Los Angeles Times. Thoracic-cardiovascular surgeons had an 18.9 percent risk of a lawsuit, and general surgeons had a 15.3 percent risk. The specialty with the lowest risk was psychiatry, as only 2.6 percent of psychiatrists were sued in the study. According to CBS, fewer than 2 percent of doctors who were sued in the study ended up having to pay a court judgement or settlement. The malpractice insurer involved in the study, according to the Washington Post, insures doctors in all 50 states and is the insurance carrier for 3 percent of the nation’s doctors.

Small part of total medical spending

It is oft-repeated that tort reforms such as “damage caps,” or a cap on the amount of money that can be awarded in lawsuits, would bring down the cost of health care. Medical malpractice caps, or “medmal caps,” are thought by some to be the key to lowering the cost of health care, but not everyone agrees. A study by the journal Health Affairs, according to ThirdAge, found that malpractice suits only accounted for $55.6 billion, or 2.4 percent of medical spending. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2009 that a national “medmal cap” of $250,000 for non-monetary damages and $500,000 for punitive damages would reduce malpractice premiums by 10 percent, and reduce the national health care expenditure by 0.2 percent.

Sources

ABC: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/risk-malpractice-claims-high-physicians/story?id=14327391

CBS: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-20094007-10391704.html?tag=cbsnewsSectionContent.9

Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/industries/just-1-in-5-medical-malpractice-cases-end-in-settlements-or-judgments-for-patients-study-says/2011/08/17/gIQA8p4nLJ_story.html

Wall Street Journal: http://blogs.wsj.com/health/2011/08/17/are-you-a-surgeon-sorry-youre-going-to-be-sued-by-age-65/?mod=google_news_blog

Los Angeles Times: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/aug/17/news/la-heb-medical-malpractice-claims-specialty-20110817

Third Age: http://www.thirdage.com/news/medical-malpractice-costs-much-less-expected_9-8-2010

Congressional Budget Office (PDF – Requires Adobe Reader): http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/106xx/doc10641/10-09-Tort_Reform.pdf

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