Study Shows 1% of Doctors Pay 32% of Malpractice Payouts

It’s remarkable how often we put our lives into other people’s hands. Whenever you get a ride from a friend, you depend on that friend being a capable driver. That notion is severely elevated when you step onboard a plane. You’ll never know what kind of flying record your pilot might have, yet you still buckle up and take flight.

Then there are the thousands of times during the day when patients turn their lives over to doctors. Whether they are going in for surgery or waiting for test results that will dictate a course of treatment, we put our faith in doctors. Sometimes that faith is misplaced, especially when the doctor has a proven track record of medical malpractice.

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Malpractice by the Numbers

According to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 1% of doctors are paying out 32% of malpractice settlements. For this study, the researchers looked at over 66,000 claims paid out by 54,099 doctors between 2005 and 2014. What they found is that most of the targeted physicians were older.

Also, the risk of having an additional claim goes up with the number of previous claims. It stands to reason that a doctor who erred at least three times before is going to find themselves in the same kind of trouble again. Here’s how the Journal breaks that down:

“Over a recent 10-year period, a small number of physicians with distinctive characteristics accounted for a disproportionately large number of paid malpractice claims.”

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Options for Patients

If you are rushed into an emergency room, you don’t have a lot of time to check out the ER Yelp reviews. However, if you are planning surgery or some other type of medical procedure, it doesn’t hurt to do a little research on your prospective surgeon.

In California, patients can visit the state medical board website to find out all about their doctors. There are details about the number of lawsuits that are part of the public record and even whether a physician has a valid license. However, there are some who suggest that information might not be enough to completely inform a patient.

The Consumers Union recently called on the Medical Board of California to compel doctors to notify their patients if they are on some sort of probation, either with malpractice or a criminal offense like a DUI.

“Maybe if patients knew, they wouldn’t see the doctor,” said Lisa McGiffert, Director of the Safe Patient Project at Consumers Union told KQED News. “Maybe they still would. But they are doing it with their eyes open.”

The Lack of Follow Up

The Journal research makes a compelling argument for risk intervention. Clearly, those doctors who are repeat offenders should be looked into by insurance companies and medical license boards. To an outsider, this might seem like a no-brainer. After all, if the police knew someone who was going to commit a crime, wouldn’t they try to stop that from happening? However, those organizations tasked with overseeing physicians appear to be reluctant to step in.

Does this mean we should stop seeing doctors all together? Obviously not because the portion of doctors involved in malpractice suits is still extremely low. However, all physicians are still required to carry malpractice insurance. As with all types of insurance, it is the law-abiding policyholders who end up paying for the high-risk group.

Perhaps if more patients become aware of these situations, they can compel the insurance companies and review boards to take a more proactive stance. It’s another reason why it is important to let your voice be heard.

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