The New England Journal of Medicine has published a study of malpractice claims. The research was primarily funded by the RAND Institute and carried out by researchers from Harvard and USC. The researchers examined data of a large professional liability insurer over a 14 year period. The data was sufficiently broad that the researchers were able to draw conclusions concerning the proportion of physicians who had malpractice claims in a year, the proportion of claims leading to a payment of compensation to a plaintiff and the size of the payment for 25 specialties.
The study found that each year during the study period 7.4% of all physicians had a malpractice claim. Of these claims 78% did not result in a payment to a claimant. In other words only 1 in 5 malpractice claims resulted in compensation.
Physicians who faced the most claims were those practicing in neurosurgery, thoracic-cardiovascular surgery and general surgery. Orthopedic surgeons displace neurosurgeons from the top three when listing the specialties with the highest proportion of payouts. Specialists with the smallest proportion of claims were those in the fields of family medicine, pediatrics and psychiatry.
The specialties with the highest mean or average payout were pediatrics, pathology and obstetrics and gynecology.
The study uncovers an important aspect of malpractice liability which is that most claims do not result in payment to a plaintiff. While the study is is a review of U.S. data we know that the same experience holds true in Canada. The study did not examine the reasons why such a high proportion of claims did not result in a payment. Specifically the study did not evaluate the merits of claims that were dropped. Studies that have looked at the merits of closed claims have found that most negligence claims involve medical error and serious injury. Medical malpractice cases are costly and complicated and this undoubtedly is a reason why a significant number of claims do not result in payment to a plaintiff. For a more detailed look at what is required in order to be able to succeed in a medical malpractice action please refer to our malpractice case evaluation page.