Medical Malpractice: Top Reasons Why Doctors Get Sued

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Medical malpractice claims are a growing concern among physicians and future doctors, including medical students and residents who worry about the potential legal burden that could possibly cripple a career they’ve worked so hard for. The New England Journal of Medicine investigated 14 years worth of malpractice claims data from over 40,000 physicians to conclude that in any given year, 7.4% of those physicians had a malpractice claim.  Ineffective patient communication has been the root of issue of some malpractice claims, though other claims do stem from physician negligence. Here are some of the most common reasons that doctors get sued:

Failure to Diagnose

Physicians spend years obtaining the practical and clinical knowledge needed to assess symptoms and diagnose patients. In instances where a patient believes the doctor did not relate their symptoms to a condition and left the condition undiagnosed, a medical malpractice suit may be considered. A Medscape study found that ‘failure to diagnose’ was one of the top reasons for medical malpractice lawsuits, with 31% of respondents making this claim.

Abnormal Injury

Coming in at 31% were ‘abnormal injury’ claims, which is when the patient believes that after being treated by the doctor, they suffered injuries that would not have occurred under care of a different physician. Injuries can range from minor to severe, but in more recent years, injuries stemming from nerve damage have frequently incurred this type of malpractice claim. In an effort to reduce the number of nerve damage injuries, the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA) Foundation published a study on the different types of nerve injuries and prevention methods for practitioners.

Failure to Treat

When a patient is not correctly treated, whether due to inadequate treatment or even the wrong treatment for their particular condition, they may consider a ‘failure to treat’ claim. This particular claim is not as cut and dry and other types of claims, since there are several categories of failures that cross into malpractice territory. Not performing necessary medical testing, delayed treatment, and not referring a patient to a specialist when needed all are foundations for failure to treat complaints. It was found that 12% of doctors faced a lawsuit for some form of lack of treatment.

Poor Documentation

Only 4% of patients felt that they were not fully briefed on their condition or treatment, and therefore were not able to properly recover- a dramatically lower percentage than the other malpractice claim causes. Patients are often given verbal and even written instructions on their condition, treatment options, and follow-up care. However, without record of these documents a doctor could end up liable for poor documentation. Many hospitals and medical facilities have implemented their own policies for effective documentation of patient understanding and education for both compliance and preventative measures.

Medication Errors

The National Institute of Medicine’s (NIM) 2006 report “Preventing Medication Errors” reported that 1.5 million Americans are injured each year due to mistakes in medication administration. That being said, only 4% of patients claimed a prescription related error in their malpractice lawsuit. Wondering why that statistic is not drastically higher? In a court of law it can be difficult to prove that an error occurred, or that the specific medication error caused significant harm. There are both voluntary and mandatory health care error reporting systems in place for medical professionals, however the NIM has stated there are barriers with both systems.  For example, lack of reporting by medical staff due to fear of disciplinary actions is one reason that these errors are not always reported.

Sierra Kennedy
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