A new analysis from the American Medical Association (AMA) finds the possibility of being sued during a career in medicine is very real for most doctors, which is notable given that most claims end with no finding of negligence or error. According to the analysis of claim frequency, nearly one-third (31.2%) of U.S. physicians in 2022 reported they had previously been sued.
“Even the most highly qualified and competent physicians in the U.S. may face a medical liability claim in their careers, however, getting sued is not indicative of medical errors,” said AMA President Jack Resneck Jr., M.D. “All medical care comes with risks, yet physicians are willing to perform high-risk procedures that offer hope of relief from debilitating symptoms or life-threatening conditions. When physicians are sued, two-thirds of civil liability claims are dropped, dismissed, or withdrawn without a finding of fault. When claims proceed to trial and are decided by a verdict, the defendants prevail in nearly 9 out 10 cases.”
The AMA analysis shows it is virtually a matter of time before a physician is sued. The longer a physician is in practice, the higher their exposure to risk. However, the analysis shows that in addition to age, a physician’s medical specialty and gender are prominent factors in the likelihood of being sued during a career in medicine.
Physicians with more years in practice have had more exposure to risk. As such, nearly half (46.8%) of physicians over 54 had been sued, compared to 9.5% of physicians under 40. On average, physicians over 54 had a one-to-one claim rate (100 per 100 physicians), whereas physicians under 40 had 11 claims per 100 physicians.
The widest variation in claim frequency is attributed to the medical specialty that defines the clinical focus of a physician. In general, surgical specialties are at highest risk and internal medicine subspecialties are at lowest risk. Obstetricians/gynecologists (ob-gyns), general surgeons, other surgeons and orthopedic surgeons are at highest risk of being sued during their careers. About 62% of ob-gyns and 59.3% of general surgeons had been sued in their careers to date, compared to 7% allergists/immunologists and 8% of hematologists/oncologists who are at lowest risk. Even before age 55, 43.9% of general surgeons and 47.2% of ob-gyns had already been sued.
Women physicians face lower liability risk than men. Less than one-quarter (23.8%) of women had previously been sued, compared to more than a third (36.8%) of men. On average, women had fewer claims (42 per 100 physicians) than men (75 per 100 physicians).
Given the heavy cost associated with a litigious climate and the significant financial toll it takes on the nation’s health care system, the AMA continues to work with state and specialty medical associations and other stakeholders in pursuit of both traditional and innovative medical liability reforms that strike a reasonable balance between the needs of patients who have been harmed and the needs of millions of Americans who need affordable, accessible medical care. For information on AMA solutions to reshape the current medical liability system to better serve both physicians and patients, please read Medical Liability Reform– Now!.
The new analysis on claim frequency is the latest addition to the AMA's Policy Research Perspective series that studies trends in the medical liability market. The series is available to download from the AMA website.