Believe it or not, most physicians are repeat malpractice offenders. A New England Journal of Medicine study indicated that doctors who are sued once for malpractice are generally more likely to be sued again for malpractice. “Specifically, 1 percent of physicians paid 32 percent of all malpractice claims, and the more physicians are sued, the more likely they are to be sued again. It’s a vicious cycle that leaves a trail of injured patients in its wake. The researchers analyzed data from the National Practitioner Data Bank, they went back through 10 years of paid medical malpractice claims. They found 62,426 claims were paid against 54,099 doctors. The good news is that 94 percent of all doctors have no claims. The bad news is that a handful of doctors are responsible for the majority of claims.”

Hospitals and health care centers can track physician errors. Therefore, they can identify offenders and remove them. It’s the first step in preventing harm to future patients. Here are some more stats on medical malpractice:

  • Neurosurgeons are up to twice as likely to commit malpractice in residency
  • Pediatricians are 30 percent less likely to commit medical malpractice
  • The highest risk physicians are ones who have paid 6+ claims
  • 54 percent of malpractice cases are serious

Are Patients Protected from Malpractice?

The answer is yes, but only to some degree. Under federal law, hiring hospitals are required to look up a potential physician candidate’s disciplinary history and previous malpractice history. While patients don’t have this privilege, hospitals are allowed to check the Data Bank for this information. On one hand, patients can feel confident that the hospital has vetted a physician. On the other hand, patients should be a little suspicious due to the fact that the law doesn’t mandate what hospitals actually do with information from the Data Bank. This is why some offending physicians are still hired.

The statistics involved in the study should be a wakeup call to both hospitals and medical malpractice insurance companies. The Data Bank is a national tool should be used to identify high risk doctors early on and set up an effective intervention program. This way the risk of medical malpractice can be greatly reduced.

What It All Actually Means

An overall look at medical malpractice indicates that just a few physicians are sued. It’s important to also note that just because a medical malpractice claim is settled doesn’t mean that malpractice was committed. Often, it is a strategic move to avoid a costly lawsuit. It could also indicate that while the standard of care was below level, there was actually no malpractice. “It may be that the physician is delivering substandard care, it may be that physician has poor conversational skills or some combination of those things,” Studdert said about recurring claim settlements. “But either way it’s a little bit of a warning sign and suggests at the very least that someone should be looking into the quality of care that clinician is delivering.”

Improvement in what a patient can find out about a doctor is definitely needed. There certainly needs to be more transparency. “The authors of the study say there are relatively few instances where health care systems and medical insurers take the care to follow up and intervene in the case of repeat medical malpractice offenders. They believe their predictors could be used to prevent many cases of medical malpractice, and therefore, a great deal of patient and family pain and suffering. In most cases, however, it can be difficult for a patient or prospective patient to discern any previous medical malpractice activity. Even in California, a state with relatively strong patient rights laws, doctors’ medical malpractice records become publicly searchable only in some types of medical malpractice settlements and only if a doctor has had three or four settlements in a five-year period. Most patients may assume a doctor’s active practice means he or she has not paid out any medical malpractice claims, but the facts show clearly that many of these doctors continue to practice despite repeated malpractice payouts.”