Medical malpractice suits target 1 in 14 doctors every year. Average medical malpractice payout is $275,000.
Only 1 in 5 malpractice claims against doctors leads to a settlement or other payout, according to the most comprehensive study of these claims in two decades.
But while doctors and their insurers may be winning most of these challenges, that's still a lot of fighting. Each year about 1 in 14 doctors is the target of a claim, and most physicians and virtually every surgeon will face at least one in their careers, the study found.
"They hate having their name dragged through the local newspaper and having to go to court," he said.
The study might seem to support a common opinion among doctors that most malpractice lawsuits are baseless, but the authors said the truth is more complicated than that.
They noted influential earlier research in New York state concluding that just a tiny fraction of the patients harmed by medical mistakes actually file claims.
Trial lawyers say cost is a barrier to bringing a claim to court. There are very high up-front costs for hiring expert witnesses and preparing a case. Doctors, hospitals and their insurers often have significant money and legal firepower. Some states also have caps on malpractice awards. So, usually, only very strong cases with high expected payouts are pursued.
Given the expense and other difficulties involved in winning, it's doubtful most claims are filed on a greedy whim, the researchers said.
"A lawyer would have to be an idiot to take a frivolous case to court," Chandra said.
The study was published online Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine.
The research team turned to one of the nation's largest national malpractice insurers, analyzing data for about 41,000 physicians who bought coverage from 1991-2005. The researchers could only get the data by signing an agreement not to identify the insurer, so they wouldn't disclose the name of the company.
The insurer represents only about 3 percent of the nation's doctors, but it operates in all 50 states. The average payouts were about the same as seen in the government-created National Practitioner Data Bank, which records payouts but doesn't record all claims filed.