The results of a comprehensive study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) confirms that physicians’ fears of being sued for malpractice are not irrational. According to the article, “Malpractice Risk According to Physician Specialty”, most physician will be sued for malpractice at least once in their careers. Interestingly, however, only about 22% of malpractice cases annually result in a settlement or other payout.

Low-risk specialists including psychiatrists, pediatricians, family practitioners, and dermatologists have a 75% chance on average of being sued during their careers but high risk surgery specialists — thoracic cardiovascular surgery, neurosurgery, general surgery, orthopaedic, and plastic surgery – face a 99% chance of being sued. However, the study, which also looked at the average size of payouts, suggests that the likelihood of being sued is not necessarily related to the size of payouts. For example, the average payout in pediatric cases was $520,923 but was only $344,811 in neurosurgery cases.

The threat of a malpractice lawsuit (as opposed to Medicare/payor overpayment liability which I contend is much more likely and not an insured risk!) is a perennial bogeyman for most physicians. The NEJM article is a must read for any physician who wants to see what’s really hiding under the bed — you might find that it’s really not so scary.