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1% of Physicians Account for One-third of Paid Medical Malpractice Claims

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The National Trial LawyersThe New England Journal of Medicine has analyzed some appalling data that 1% of physicians account for approximately 32% of paid medical malpractice claims. The data - which was pulled from the National Practitioner Data Bank - shows that over a recent 10-year period, a small number of physicians with distinctive characteristics accounted for a disproportionately large number of paid malpractice claims.

Claim-prone physicians

Studying almost 70,000 malpractice claims against approximately 55,000 doctors from 2005 through 2014, the Journal analyzed data with the hope of understanding the distribution of malpractice claims among physicians. As the Journal stated, “If claim-prone physicians account for a substantial share of all claims, the ability to reliably identify them at an early stage could guide efforts to improve care.”

The breakdown of the study’s numbers is a shocking revelation for medical malpractice lawyers: claim-prone physicians do seem to be accounting for a substantial number of paid malpractice claims.

• Among all of the physicians with paid claims, 84% incurred only one malpractice claim during the study period, which accounted for 68% of all paid claims.
• Of the remaining physicians, 16% had at least two paid claims during the relevant time frame, accounting for 32% of the claims.
• The last 4% of doctors had at least three paid claims (if not more), accounting for 12% of the claims.

The Journal was able to determine by adjusted analyses that the risk of recurrence increased with the number of previous paid claims.

By calculating concentrations of claims among physicians, the Journal was able to use “multivariable recurrent-event survival analysis to identify characteristics of physicians at high risk for recurrent claims and to quantify risk levels over time.”

Dangerous doctors

Frighteningly enough, physicians who had three paid medical malpractice claims have three times the risk of incurring another paid medical malpractice claim in the future. One size does not fit all when it comes to recurrence according to practitioner specialty: the risk of malpractice among neurosurgeons, for example, was four times as great as the risk among psychiatrists.

The Journal’s conclusion boils down to this startling fact: “A small number of physicians with distinctive characteristics accounted for a disproportionately large number of paid [medical] malpractice claims.”

According to the National Practitioner Data Bank, medical malpractice claims have only continued to increase in actual dollars in recent years. As NTL reported, 2013 saw $168 million more medical malpractice payouts than 2012 (a 4.7% increase). Most of the payouts are a result of settlements (96%) instead of judgments.

Settlements and Verdicts

Lubin and Meyer’s list of recent medical malpractice verdicts and settlements in the last year demonstrates that medical practice claims have only continued to increase . . . both in number of claims and in the millions of dollars physicians have paid out:

• $6.25M Settlement for Baby’s Brain Injuries at Birth
• $35.4M Verdict: Mother’s Stroke Following Childbirth
• Ovarian Cancer Malpractice Verdict: $11.325M
• $16.7 Million Award in Lung Cancer Lawsuit
• Widow Awarded $13M in Tonsillectomy Post-op Death
• Cervical Cancer Diagnosis Delay: $1M Settlement

These are just a sampling of the lawsuits, verdicts, and settlements relating to medical malpractice claims since 2014.

Just this month, a Hampden Superior Court jury returned a $29.8 million verdict against a doctor in favor of a minor plaintiff who suffered a devastating brain injury at birth. The infant plaintiff’s mother arrived at Baystate Medical Center 28 weeks pregnant with complaints of decreased fetal movement. The residents on duty recognized the problems and placed calls to the on-call attending physician, Dr. David Seubert, who continued to provide advice to “monitor the baby closely” over the phone throughout the evening.

Dr. Seubert never came to the hospital nor did he contact any attending physicians in the hospital to have them evaluate the mother. He merely continued to encourage close monitoring. This type of concerning practice continued for the next three-and-one-half hours.

Finally, after several more serious drops in the baby’s heart rate, a call was made by the residents of the hospital for emergency delivery. The baby was barely alive at birth and had to be aggressively resuscitated. An MRI scan showed her injuries were due to lack of oxygen and blood flow to her brain - something “close monitoring” without any further action could never have ameliorated.

At the time of trial, the plaintiff was 11 years old. She is unable to walk, unable to talk, is legally blind, has a tracheostomy tube and is fed via g-tube. She is dependent on others for all of her activities.

As The New England Journal of Medicine’s troubling trends in medical malpractice claims demonstrates, repeat offenders are more likely than not. With the likelihood that physicians who have paid medical malpractice claims will continue to incur future claims due to similar behavior, medical malpractice attorneys should continue to be aware of this potential increase in verdicts and settlements.

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