Perhaps part of the answer is provided in a new article in the New England Journal of Medicine, "Prevalence and Characteristics of Physicians Prone to Malpractice Claims," by David Studdert and colleagues. (The article has a theme that is somewhat consistent to one I discussed a few days ago, which reported that a small group of doctors in Australia accounted for many patient complaints.)
The authors conducted an extensive review of US National Practitioner Data Bank information, analyzing 66,426 claims paid against 54,099 physicians from 2005 through 2014. They found that, over this 10-year period, "a small number of physicians with distinctive characteristics accounted for a disproportionately large number of paid malpractice claims."
Approximately 1% of all physicians accounted for 32% of paid claims. Among physicians with paid claims, 84% incurred only one during the study period (accounting for 68% of all paid claims), 16% had at least two paid claims (accounting for 32% of the claims), and 4% had at least three paid claims (accounting for 12% of the claims). In adjusted analyses, the risk of recurrence increased with the number of previous paid claims. For example, as compared with physicians who had one previous paid claim, the 2160 physicians who had three paid claims had three times the risk of incurring another.
Risks also varied widely according to specialty. As compared with the risk of recurrence among internal medicine physicians, the risk of recurrence was approximately double among neurosurgeons, orthopedic surgeons, general surgeons, plastic surgeons, and obstetrician–gynecologists. The lowest risks of recurrence were seen among psychiatrists and pediatricians.
Male physicians had a 38% higher risk of recurrence than female physicians. The risk of recurrence among physicians younger than 35 years of age was approximately one third the risk among their older colleagues. Residents had a lower risk of recurrence than nonresidents, and M.D.s had a lower risk than D.O.s.
We could stop right there and conclude that the problem lies solely with the high-risk doctors. But, as the authors point out, these doctors practice in health systems, and those systems have the potential to intervene.
All institutions that handle large numbers of patient complaints and claims should understand the distribution of these events within their own “at risk” populations. In our experience, few do. With notable exceptions, fewer still systematically identify and intervene with practitioners who are at high risk for future claims. Rather, the risk-mitigation initiatives that are in place — such as the educational and premium-discount programs that some malpractice-insurance companies offer — are generally offered en masse. Otherwise, insurers tackle the problem of claim-prone physicians primarily by raising premiums or terminating coverage. These strategies do not directly address the underlying problems that lead to many claims.
In an environment in which a small minority of physicians with multiple claims accounts for a substantial share of all claims, an ability to reliably predict who is at high risk for further claims could be very useful. . . . If reliable prediction proves to be feasible, our hope is that liability insurers and health care organizations would use the information constructively, by collaborating on interventions to address risks posed by claim-prone physicians (e.g., peer counseling, training, and supervision). It could present an exciting opportunity for the liability and risk-management enterprises to join the mainstream of efforts to improve quality.