Study shows pathologists are at greater risk for malpractice lawsuits than other physician specialties
It is estimated that pathologists and other healthcare providers paid nearly $31 billion in malpractice insurance in 2011, according to a recently-published study. Researchers also determined that pathologists are at greater risk of malpractice claims than most other medical specialties and are more likely to have unfavorable outcomes when those claims are litigated.
Study Compares Malpractice Claims According to Physician Specialty
Patients for Fair Compensation (PFC) conducted the study. It was published in The JAMA Network’s Archives of Internal Medicine. Researchers investigated the proportion of malpractice claims that result in litigation or the outcomes of the litigation process, according to the authors’ abstract. In particular, the study focused on the different outcomes according to physician specialty.
Anatomic pathologists and clinical laboratory pathologists will be interested to learn how pathology compared to other specialties. The study showed two particularly noteworthy results. First, malpractice claims against pathologists that were litigated had the least number of suits dismissed in court. Second, pathologists’ claims that were litigated proceeded to a trial verdict more frequently than other medical specialties.
This means that, when compared to other medical specialties, pathologists are at greater risk of experiencing a negative impact from malpractice litigation, as cited by the authors in the abstract of their study. The negative impacts range from lost practice time and added stress, to extra work and reputational damage resulting from malpractice claims.
The authors reviewed more than 10,000 claims from an undisclosed nationwide professional liability insurer. The claims closed between 2002 and 2005. The three objectives of the study were to:
- calculate the proportion of malpractice claims resulting in litigation;
- analyze how litigated claims were resolved according to specialty; and,
- calculate the time required to resolve claims of varying types.
The study showed that a physician’s area of specialization has a bearing on the likely outcome of malpractice claims. “The risk of medical malpractice varies substantially according to physician specialty,” the authors wrote.
Higher Risk of Malpractice Litigation and Poorer Outcomes for Pathologists
Here is a breakdown of the key findings of the study:
Frequency with which litigated malpractice claims were dismissed by courts, according to specialty:
- Suits against internists and internal medicine – 61.5% dismissed
- Average across all specialties – 54.1% dismissed
- Pathologists – 36.5% dismissed
The authors suggested that the lower rate of dismissals for pathology could be due to the fact that claims against pathologists generally relate to failure to diagnose disease.
Frequency with which litigated malpractice claims were resolved before a verdict:
- Internists and medicine-based subspecialists – 33.3% resolved pre-verdict
- Pathologists – 49.6% resolved pre-verdict
Frequency with which litigated malpractice claims underwent a trial verdict:
- Anesthesiologists – 2.0% trial verdict reached
- Internists and medicine-based subspecialists – 2.7% trial verdict reached
- Across specialties – 4.5% trial verdict reached
- Pathologists – 7.4% trial verdict reached
The frequency of claims ending in a trial verdict was low across specialties, a story at Insurance News Net reported. Of the cases that proceeded to a verdict, the study found, 79.6% resulted in favor of the physician. Pathologists were the least likely to have a jury find in their favor, relative to other specialist physicians.
Average time required to resolve all claims:
- Non-litigated claims – 11.6 months
- Mean of all claims – 19.0 months
- Litigated claims – 25.1 months
The study showed that malpractice litigation results in a significant drain on a doctor’s time.
Average time required to resolve litigated claims:
- Claims dismissed in court – 20.4 months, mean
- Claims resolved pre-verdict – 28.5 months, mean
- Claims resolved at trial in favor of defendants – 39.0 months, mean
- Claims resolved at trial in favor of plaintiffs – 43.5 months, mean
Current Malpractice Compensation System Is Not Working for Patients
According to the PFC study estimates, in 2011, malpractice insurance premiums paid by physicians totaled nearly $31 billion. This was a record amount. Of those premium dollars, about $25 billion—roughly 80%—went to compensate attorneys and cover legal costs, administrative costs, and insurance company profits. The net amount of compensation paid to 19,000 patients was about $6 billion—less than 20%.
“You can’t find a more ineffective system for compensating injured patients than what we have in the United States,” stated Richard L. Jackson, Chief Executive Officer of Jackson Healthcare http://www.jacksonhealthcare.com/, based in Alpharetta, Georgia, and Chairman of PFC. “We take in far too much money and get so few dollars to medically injured persons. The system is just not working for patients.”
For most pathologists, these findings reveal few surprises. It is helpful, however, to be able to quantify the relative risk pathologists face from malpractice actions, compared to other medical specialties.
—Pamela Scherer McLeod