AMA: Nearly One-Third of Physicians Have Been Sued for Medical Liability Claims

By Christopher Cheney

new analysis from the American Medical Association (AMA) shows that 31.2% of physicians have been sued for medical liability claims.

Most lawsuits for medical liability claims do not result in the finding of a medical error, according to the AMA. From 2016 to 2018, 65% of claims were dropped, dismissed, or withdrawn; and for the 6% of claims decided by a trial verdict, 89% were won by the defendant.

Many physicians will face lawsuits during their careers, but they practice medicine despite the risk, AMA President Jack Resneck Jr., MD, said in a prepared statement. “Even the most highly qualified and competent physicians in the U.S. may face a medical liability claim in their careers, however, getting sued is not indicative of medical errors. All medical care comes with risks, yet physicians are willing to perform high-risk procedures that offer hope of relief from debilitating symptoms or life-threatening conditions.”

The new analysis is based on the AMA’s 2016-2022 Physician Practice Benchmark Surveys. The benchmark surveys are nationally representative and include paid and unpaid claims.

The new analysis features several key findings:

  • The longer physicians practice medicine, the higher their risk of a medical liability claim. For physicians over the age of 54, 46.8% have faced a lawsuit. For physicians under age 40, 9.5% have faced a lawsuit.
  • Medical specialty accounts for the largest variation in lawsuits, with surgical specialties generally facing the highest risk and internal medicine subspecialties generally facing the lowest risk. The specialties at highest risk of lawsuits include obstetricians-gynecologists, with about 62% of physicians being sued during their careers, and general surgeons, with about 60% of physicians being sued during their careers. The specialties at lowest risk of lawsuits include allergists and immunologists, with 7% of physicians being sued during their careers, and hematologists and oncologists, with 8% of physicians being sued during their careers.
  • Lawsuits also vary by physician gender. Female physicians are at lower risk of being sued than their male counterparts. About 24% of female physicians have been sued during their career compared to about 37% of male physicians having been sued during their career. Female physicians had 42 claims per 100 physicians compared to 75 claims per 100 physicians for male physicians.

Medical liability claim reform is needed, the AMA said in a prepared statement. “Given the heavy cost associated with a litigious climate and the significant financial toll it takes on the nation’s healthcare system, the AMA continues to work with state and specialty medical associations and other stakeholders in pursuit of both traditional and innovative medical liability reforms that strike a reasonable balance between the needs of patients who have been harmed and the needs of millions of Americans who need affordable, accessible medical care.”

Interpreting the data

There is a strong association between longer-term claim frequency and physician age, the new analysis says. “Physicians under the age of 40 are 15.6 percentage points less likely and those over 54 are 21.9 percentage points more likely to have ever been sued than their age 40-54 counterparts. These differences are almost identical when controlling for other factors. This age-risk relationship is not surprising given that older physicians have been practicing for a longer period of time and thus have had more exposure to risk.”

Specialty is a key factor in the likelihood of a physician being sued, the new analysis says. “In both the short and longer term, the widest variation in liability risk comes from specialty. Among the strongest and most consistent results is that OB/GYNs, general surgeons, orthopedic surgeons and other surgeons have a much higher incidence of claims. Of OB/GYNs, 62.4% have been sued in their careers, followed by 59.3% of general surgeons. Controlling for other factors, OB/GYNs and general surgeons are 33.6 and 28.6 percentage points more likely than general internists to have ever been sued.”

In the short term, female physicians have been at lower risk of being sued than their male counterparts, the new analysis says. “Women were less likely to have been sued in the prior year than men. Notably, this gender differential grew over time. In the 2016-2018 period, 2.8% of men were sued in the previous year, compared to 1.6% of women. There was no change over time for men in 2020-2022, but the likelihood that women received a claim fell to 0.9%. … There are a number of reasons why women are less likely to be sued. In terms of short-term risk, they tend to practice in less risky specialties and provide fewer hours of patient care.”

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.