Malpractice suits against pediatricians not likely, but expensive

August 25, 2011

Pediatricians have a considerably lower-than-average probability of being sued for malpractice compared with most specialties, but when plaintiffs prevail, their mean payouts are the highest of any physicians, according to a recent study. The mean indemnity payment for pediatricians was $520,923, almost twice as much as the mean for all physicians. But there?s good news too: read the study results and get the complete picture.

Pediatricians have a considerably lower-than-average probability of being sued for malpractice compared with most specialties, but when plaintiffs prevail, their mean payouts are the highest of any physicians, a recent study found.

The likelihood of being named in a lawsuit did not necessarily correlate to the risk of having to make a payment or the size of that payment, researchers noted.

The mean indemnity payment for all physicians was $274,887 but varied widely from $117,832 for dermatology to $520,923 for pediatrics. Even lower-risk physicians, such as pediatricians, have a 75% risk of being sued in a lifetime of practice-still likely, but considerably lower than the 99% chance faced by some higher-risk surgeons.

The good news is that, on average, 78% of all claims resulted in no payments at all.

“Although these annual rates of paid claims are low, the annual and career risks of any malpractice claim are high, suggesting that the risk of being sued alone may create a tangible fear among physicians,” researchers said.

Researchers from Harvard University analyzed malpractice data from 1991 through 2005 for all physicians who were covered by a large professional liability insurer with a nationwide client base (40,916 physicians and 233,738 physician-years of coverage). The proportion of physicians who had malpractice claims in a year, the proportion of claims leading to an indemnity payment (compensation paid to a plaintiff), and the size of indemnity payments were analyzed for 25 specialties. The cumulative risk of ever being sued was broken out into high-risk and low-risk categories.

The study researchers found that the overall malpractice risk for pediatricians was dramatically less than the 7.4% average and even well below the approximately 5% for adult family practitioners. The greatest risk of facing a lawsuit was in neurosurgery, thoracic-cardiovascular surgery, and general surgery, all above 15%.

“Although the frequency and average size of paid claims may not fully explain perceptions among physicians,” investigators wrote, “one may speculate that the large number of claims that do not lead to payment may shape perceived malpractice risk. Physicians can insure against indemnity payments through malpractice insurance, but they cannot insure against the indirect costs of litigation, such as time, stress, added work, and reputational damage.”

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