Letters from Maine

Hidden costs


By the time you reach age 55, 18% of your pediatrician colleagues – or you yourself – will have been sued for malpractice. As many as 64% of your brother and sister obstetrician-gynecologists will have suffered the same fate. These numbers come from a pool of recent data released by the American Medical Association that suggest that nearly half of physicians in this country will be sued for malpractice by age 55 years.

the scales of justice in a courtroom are shown tomloel/ThinkStock
A related release by the AMA details the outcomes and financial costs of malpractice suits between 2006 and 2015 (“Medical professional liability insurance indemnity payments, expenses, and claim disposition, 2006-2015,” by Jose R. Guardado, PhD, AMA Policy Research Perspectives, 2018). In a press release accompanying the publication of these two studies AMA President David O. Barbe, MD, MHA, observes, “Even though the vast majority of claims are dropped, dismissed, or withdrawn, the heavy cost associated with a litigious climate takes a significant financial toll on our health care system when the nation is working to reduce unnecessary health care costs.”

I have read the AMA’s press release and the two studies several times and didn’t see a single reference to the emotional toll taken on the health care providers who have been sued. Of course, although it is easy to imagine that the human cost of a malpractice suit is probably high, it is not one of those figures that the number crunchers can find in their data sets and spreadsheets.

As someone who has endured a malpractice suit that went to trial, I can bear personal witness to the emotional challenges that come with litigation. Although a case that goes to trial is unusual (7%), most cases like ours are won by defendants (87.5%). That number was of little or no reassurance to me and my codefendants. Every waking hour during the 7 years that it took our case to play out was darkened by the threat to my professional career. Every trip to the mailbox was an exercise in courage. Would there be another piece of voluminous communication to remind me of the terrible reality?

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