Medicolegal Issues

ObGyn malpractice liability risk: 2020 developments and probabilities

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The number of ObGyn paid malpractice claims has decreased over time. Although large verdicts and physicians with multiple paid malpractice claims receive a good deal of attention (as we noted in part 1 of our series), in fact, paid medical malpractice claims have trended downward in recent decades.5 When the data above are disaggregated by 5-year periods, for example, in obstetrics and gynecology, there has been a consistent reduction in paid malpractice claims from 1992 to 2014. Paid claims went from 58 per 1,000 physician-years in 1992–1996 to 25 per 1,000 in 2009–2014 (FIGURE 2).4,6 In short, the rate dropped by half over approximately 20 years.4

It is reasonable to expect that such a decline in the cost of malpractice insurance premiums would follow. Robert L. Barbieri, MD, who practices in Boston, Massachusetts, in his excellent recent editorial in OBG Management6 reported that his professional liability insurance premiums decreased 18% from 2014 to 2019, and his colleague reported a 22% reduction during the same time period.6 An American Medical Association report of 7 states or metropolitan areas for 2008 to 2017 found considerable variance. The study looked at the rates and the trend of rates for malpractice insurance in several areas of the United States (FIGURE 3).7 For ObGyns, one of these jurisdictions experienced increased rates; in one other, rates stayed the same, and in 5 jurisdictions, the rates went down. The premiums varied across the country, however. In 2017, Los Angeles/Orange had an average rate of $49,804, and in Nassau and Suffolk counties, New York, the rate was $214,999. The median rate was approximately $170,000.7

Why have malpractice payouts declined overall?

Have medical errors declined?

It would be wonderful if the reduction in malpractice claims represented a significant decrease in medical errors. Attention to medical errors was driven by the first widely noticed study of medical error deaths. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) study in 2000, put the number of deaths annually at 44,000 to 98,000.8 There have been many efforts to reduce such errors, and it is possible that those efforts have indeed reduced errors somewhat.4 Barbieri provided a helpful digest of many of the error-reduction suggestions for ObGyn practice (TABLE 1).6 But the number of medical errors remains high. More recent studies have suggested that the IOM’s reported number of injuries may have been low.9 In 2013, one study suggested that 210,000 deaths annually were “associated with preventable harm” in hospitals. Because of how the data were gathered the authors estimated that the actual number of preventable deaths was closer to 400,000 annually. Serious harm to patients was estimated at 10 to 20 times the IOM rate.9

Therefore, a dramatic reduction in preventable medical errors does not appear to explain the reduction in malpractice claims. Some portion of it may be explained by malpractice reforms—see "The medical reform factor" section below.

The collective accountability factor

The way malpractice claims are paid (FIGURE 4),10 reported, and handled may explain some of the apparent reduction in overall paid claims. Perhaps the advent of “collective accountability,” in which patient care is rendered by teams and responsibility accepted at a team level, can alleviate a significant amount of individual physician medical malpractice claims.11 This “enterprise liability” may shift the burden of medical error from physicians to health care organizations.12 Collective accountability may, therefore, focus on institutional responsibility rather than individual physician negligence.11,13 Institutions frequently hire multiple specialists and cover their medical malpractice costs as well as stand to be named in suits.

Continue to: The institutional involvement in malpractice cases also may affect...

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