“You’re being sued for medical malpractice” is one phrase that no healthcare professional wants to hear. Unfortunately, the numbers suggest that health professionals are more likely to encounter a medical malpractice claim than not.
According to Medscape’s Guide to Winning Your Malpractice Lawsuit, 42 percent of physicians have been sued at some point in their careers. Specialists appear to have an even greater risk for lawsuits: over half of all ob-gyns report being sued before they reached the age of 40.
Even healthcare professionals who may not carry an M.D., like massage therapists and nutritionists, can be sued for malpractice. (See our blog post “Malpractice insurance: do acupuncturists need it?” for more information.)
According to the Tort Liability Costs for Small Businesses report released by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform in 2010, “almost two of every five medical malpractice claims were baseless.” That means the claims lacked the evidence necessary to prove injury or professional negligence. In other words, these claims often have nothing to do with the quality of your work.
Even more astounding? Plaintiffs (the people who initiate lawsuits) were still paid for roughly one-fourth of those baseless claims.
Small businesses seem to be the targets of medical malpractice lawsuits. The U.S. Chamber report states that the malpractice costs for small physician offices and small medical labs totaled $28 billion in 2008. To put that number in perspective, that’s 94 percent of all medical malpractice costs in America.
How much does a medical malpractice lawsuit cost?
Medical malpractice lawsuits can be extremely expensive. According to Medscape’s guide, indemnity payments (money awarded to plaintiffs if they win the case) cost an average of:
- $200,000 for a medical malpractice claim settled out of court.
- $375,000 for a medical malpractice claim settled in court.
(Read “Pharmacist found liable for $1.44 million in HIPAA professional liability case” for a real-world example of a medical malpractice case.)
But those numbers don’t account for the cost of your legal counsel. The guide explains that average defense costs can vary greatly:
- $22,000 for claims that are dropped or dismissed.
- $100,000+ for claims that go to trial.
Medical professionals should also note that it takes, on average, four to five years to reach a settlement. The above numbers don’t account for cost of productivity loss while you’re working with your lawyer on the case.
What can healthcare professionals do to avoid medical malpractice lawsuits?
While the largest medical malpractice verdict on record exceeded $268 million, verdicts that total more than $100 million are extremely rare. Most of the time, plaintiffs or the jury will aim for a verdict that matches the limits (usually $1 million per incident) of your errors and omissions / malpractice insurance policy. That’s why healthcare professionals should always carry medical malpractice insurance.
This type of coverage (also called errors and omissions or professional liability insurance) can help you pay for legal counsel, court fees, and judgments or settlements when a patient claims you were negligent or violated a standard of care.
Though many medical malpractice claims are unavoidable, it’s always best to try to avoid claims and lawsuits when you can. As soon as you sense that a patient is unhappy, take action.
The following steps are outlined from “Staying out of court,” an article from Doctor’s Digest. These suggestions can help you mitigate your liability risks or address a medical malpractice claim if your patient decides to sue:
- Have written office protocol regarding how to effectively deal with potential medical malpractice suits. (This should include contacting your insurance provider as soon as possible.)
- Do not avoid speaking with frustrated patients. Be sure to acknowledge their concerns promptly, honestly, and with empathy. Avoid giving patients explanations they can’t understand, and make sure to suggest possible solutions for their concerns.
- Document every complaint that a patient mentions in your office. This includes a description and the date of the complaint. Note your suggestions and your patient’s responses, as well as the results of any follow-up discussions. Keep copies of all forms of communication.
For more information about malpractice, read "What is malpractice?" on our blog.