Rates and Characteristics of Paid Malpractice Claims Among US Physicians by Specialty, 1992-2014

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Abstract

Importance

Although physician concerns about medical malpractice are substantial, national data are lacking on the rate of claims paid on behalf of US physicians by specialty.

Objective

To characterize paid malpractice claims by specialty.

Design, Setting, and Participants

A comprehensive analysis was conducted of all paid malpractice claims, with linkage to physician specialty, from the National Practitioner Data Bank from January 1, 1992, to December 31, 2014, a period including an estimated 19.9 million physician-years. All dollar amounts were inflation adjusted to 2014 dollars using the Consumer Price Index. The dates on which this analysis was performed were from May 1, 2015, to February 20, 2016, and from October 25 to December 16, 2016.

Main Outcomes and Measures

For malpractice claims (n = 280 368) paid on behalf of physicians (in aggregate and by specialty): rates per physician-year, mean compensation amounts, the concentration of paid claims among a limited number of physicians, the proportion of paid claims that were greater than $1 million, severity of injury, and type of malpractice alleged.

Results

From 1992-1996 to 2009-2014, the rate of paid claims decreased by 55.7% (from 20.1 to 8.9 per 1000 physician-years; P < .001), ranging from a 13.5% decrease in cardiology (from 15.6 to 13.5 per 1000 physician-years; P = .15) to a 75.8% decrease in pediatrics (from 9.9 to 2.4 per 1000 physician-years; P < .001). The mean compensation payment was $329 565. The mean payment increased by 23.3%, from $286 751 in 1992-1996 to $353 473 in 2009-2014 (P < .001). The increases ranged from $17 431 in general practice (from $218 350 in 1992-1996 to $235 781 in 2009-2014; P = .36) to $114 410 in gastroenterology (from $276 128 in 1992-1996 to $390 538 in 2009-2014; P < .001) and $138 708 in pathology (from $335 249 in 1992-1996 to $473 957 in 2009-2014; P = .005). Of 280 368 paid claims, 21 271 (7.6%) exceeded $1 million (4304 of 69 617 [6.2%] in 1992-1996 and 4322 of 54 081 [8.0%] in 2009-2014), and 32.1% (35 293 of 109 865) involved a patient death. Diagnostic error was the most common type of allegation, present in 31.8% (35 349 of 111 066) of paid claims, ranging from 3.5% in anesthesiology (153 of 4317) to 87.0% in pathology (915 of 1052).

Conclusions and Relevance

Between 1992 and 2014, the rate of malpractice claims paid on behalf of physicians in the United States declined substantially. Mean compensation amounts and the percentage of paid claims exceeding $1 million increased, with wide differences in rates and characteristics across specialties. A better understanding of the causes of variation among specialties in paid malpractice claims may help reduce both patient injury and physicians’ risk of liability.

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