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Most medical malpractice claims litigated, but few go to trial: Study

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Most medical malpractice claims lead to litigation, but a majority of these are dismissed, and more than three-quarters of the relatively few against specialists that lead to a trial verdict are resolved in the physician's favor, says a new study.

The study, whose lead researcher was Dr. Anupam B. Jena of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, appears in the Chicago-based American Medical Assn.'s current issue of Archives in Internal Medicine.

The study examined all claims closed between 2002 and 2005 that involved some defense costs. Among all claims, 55.2% resulted in litigation, ranging from 46.7% for claims against anesthesiologists to 62.6% for claims against obstetricians and gynecologists.

Percentages varied by specialty. While cases were dismissed by the court 54.1% of the time overall, rates varied by specialty. They were highest among internists and medicine-based subspecialists at 61.5%, and lowest among pathologists at 36.5%.

Among internists and medicine-based subspecialists, 33.3% of litigation claims were resolved before a verdict, compared with 49.6% among pathologists.

Claims resulted in a trial verdict 4.5% of the time on average, ranging from 2% among anesthesiologists to 7.4% among pathologists. Cases against internists and medicine-based subspecialists were among the least likely to result in a verdict at 2.7%.

Cases that led to a verdict were in the physician's favor 79.6% of the time.

It is all a lengthy process, however, according to the study. The mean time to close a claim was 19 months, with 11.6 months and 25.1 months required for nonlitigated and litigated claims respectively.

“While most claims were ultimately decided in a physician's favor, that resolution came only after months or years,” said the study. “The substantial portion of litigated claims that are not dismissed in court and the length of time required to resolve litigated claims more generally may help explain why malpractice claims undergoing litigation are an important source of concern to physicians.”

The study is available here.

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