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Does a Medical Malpractice Suit Change a Doctor’s Practice Habits?

By Jack H. FarnbauchMarch 17, 2020

A recent study reported that approximately 9 of 10 US physicians practice defensive medicine to avoid malpractice claims, which cost the United States an estimated $56 billion per year. However, it is not clear whether being named in a malpractice claim has a considerable effect on a physician’s practice patterns. A 2019 study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine attempted to identify changes in the practice patterns of emergency department physicians after being named in a malpractice claim.

The researchers of the study chose to focus on emergency department physicians, as they have fewer barriers to practicing defensively and perceive themselves to be at a higher risk for malpractice claims than other specialties. Using commonly measured markers of provider practice such as care intensity, care speed, and patient assessment of their experience with the emergency physician, the study aimed to examine which behaviors changed, if any, and how. The researchers compared 65 physicians named in malpractice claims with 140 matched control individuals. Using difference-in-difference methods, the researchers analyzed more than 1 million emergency department visits between the named physicians and matched control individuals from 2010 to 2015. Of the reported claims, most involved a neurological condition and alleged a failure to diagnose.

The study found that after an emergency physician had been named in a malpractice lawsuit, there were no consistent changes except in Press Ganey percentile ranks, which assessed patients’ experiences with their physician. Relative to the control physicians, the named physicians had improved patient experience scores, beginning after filing and continuing into the postclaim period. Although the data showed that patient experience improved after physicians were named in a claim, there was no data to indicate how specific clinical actions were affected.

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