Legal News
Lower Costs Will Follow Reform of Malpractice Laws, AMA Says
Psychiatric News
Volume 45 Number 17 page 8-25

Nearly 1 in 4 psychiatrists has faced a medical liability claim, and that makes them the medical specialists who are the least likely to have had such a claim filed against them.

A report issued in August by the AMA found that 22.2 percent of psychiatrists have been sued for malpractice at some point in their careers. The report, which was based on an analysis of the 5,825 physician responses to the AMA's 2007-2008 Physician Practice Information Survey, found in addition that only 8 percent of psychiatrists have faced such lawsuits two or more times in their careers, and only 2 percent were sued in the 12 months prior to the survey.

Psychiatrists younger than age 55 were much less likely to have faced malpractice claims than were their older colleagues. Thirteen percent of younger psychiatrists have had claims filed against them, while about 35 percent of psychiatrists aged 55 and older have faced a malpractice claim. The pattern is similar for other specialties.

The rate of malpractice claims filed against psychiatrists is significantly lower than that of the physicians with the highest rates: general surgeons and obstetrician/gynecologists, 69 percent of whom have been sued during their career. In addition, about 52 percent of physicians in those two specialties have had at least two medical claims filed against them.

The overall rate of medical-liability claims brought against physicians—42 percent of all physicians have been sued—does not, however, indicate high rates of malpractice, concluded the report's authors and AMA officials, because the majority (65 percent) of claims were dropped, dismissed, or withdrawn. About 26 percent of the claims were settled, while 4 percent were decided by an "alternative dispute mechanism" and 5 percent were adjudicated by a trial.

"Even though the vast majority of claims are dropped or decided in favor of physicians, the understandable fear of meritless lawsuits can influence what specialty of medicine physicians practice, where they practice, and when they retire," said J. James Rohack, M.D., immediate past president of the AMA, in a written statement. "This litigious climate hurts patients' access to physician care at a time when the nation is working to reduce unnecessary health care costs."

The findings bolster the AMA's push for medical-liability reforms to lower health care costs for physicians and patients. The AMA has supported state malpractice reform laws enacted in recent years in California and Texas, and medical-liability reform at the federal level is one of its top legislative goals.

"The findings in this report validate the need for national and state medical-liability reform to rein in our out-of-control system where lawsuits are a matter of when, not if, for physicians," Rohack said.

Specifically, the AMA supports legislation sponsored by Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.)—an OB/GYN—including a bill (HR 5690) that would cap noneconomic damage awards in malpractice suits at $350,000, among other provisions.

"We support Dr. Gingrey's efforts and appreciate his leadership in introducing federal legislation that includes comprehensive medical liability reform," said Rohack in a statement to Psychiatric News.

The report "Medical Liability Claim Frequency: A 2007-2008 Snapshot of Physicians" is posted at <www.ama-assn.org/ama1/pub/upload/mm/363/prp-201001-claim-freq.pdf>.blacksquare

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