Physician Practice Changes After Paying Malpractice Claims

OrthoBuzz occasionally receives posts from guest bloggers. In response to a recent study in The New England Journal of Medicinethe following commentary comes from Matthew Deren, MD.

Malpractice. The word itself causes a visceral reaction for many of us in medicine. Although the vast majority of physicians will not pay a malpractice claim during their careers, there is still concern about the quality of care provided by doctors with multiple claims paid, either through out-of-court settlements or through court verdicts. The National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) was created, in part, to help prevent a doctor with a long list of malpractice claims paid from moving to a new geographic area for a “fresh start” without full disclosure of his or her claims history.

In the March 28, 2019 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, Studdert et al. examined changes in practice characteristics among physicians who had paid malpractice claims from 2003 through 2015. By linking the NPDB to Medicare data, the authors identified a cohort of >480,000 physicians, 89.0% of whom had paid no malpractice claims. Nearly 9% of physicians had one paid claim, while the remaining 2.3% of physicians had two or more paid claims. That 2.3% accounted for 38.9% of all the claims paid during the study period.

A total of 19,098 (4%) of claims paid were in orthopaedic surgery, which made it the seventh most-sued specialty studied. When evaluating the subgroup of all physicians with ≥3 claims paid, the authors noted that they were more likely to be male, 50 years of age or older, and to practice in surgical specialties. In multivariate analysis, physicians with at least one paid claim were more likely to leave the practice of medicine than those with none. Finally, physicians with multiple paid claims were more likely to switch into small or solo practices, but the study found “no clear association between the number of claims and the propensity to relocate, within or between states.”

To be clear, the number of malpractice claims paid by a doctor is not necessarily a reliable indicator of quality of care, though many patients arrive at that conclusion. Just as important, this study doesn’t conclude that solo practitioners—in orthopaedics or any other specialty—are more likely to have paid a higher number of claims. There are many excellent physicians in solo practices across the United States.

Ultimately, this study shows that the majority of physicians have not paid a single malpractice claim and that physicians who have paid multiple claims are not more likely than other doctors to relocate their practice. These findings should help patients trust the various procedures that are in place to prevent the exceedingly small number of physicians with a long list of malpractice payouts from relocating in an attempt to leave their history behind them. From the physician viewpoint, the findings emphasize that the impact of malpractice claims goes beyond the emotional and personal into the realm of prompting changes in practice environment.

Matthew Deren, MD is an orthopaedic surgeon at UMass Memorial Medical Center, an assistant professor at University of Massachusetts Medical School, and a member of the JBJS Social Media Advisory Board.

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