From the Journals

Malpractice: More lawsuits does not equal more relocations



Physicians who have been sued multiple times are no more likely to relocate geographically than doctors who have never faced a claim, a new study shows.

Dr. David M. Studdert, Stanford (Calif.) University

Dr. David M. Studdert

David M. Studdert of Stanford (Calif.) University and his colleagues analyzed data from Medicare and the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) to assess associations between the number of paid malpractice claims that doctors accrued and exits from medical practice, changes in clinical volume, geographic relocation, and change in practice-group size. The study population included 480,894 physicians who had 68,956 paid claims from 2003 to 2015. Of the study group, 89% had no claims, 9% had one claim, and the remaining 2% had two or more claims that accounted for 40% of all claims. Nearly three-quarters of the doctors studied were men, and the majority of specialties were internal medicine (17%), general practice/family medicine (15%), emergency medicine (7%), radiology (6%), and anesthesiology (6%).

Physicians with a higher number of claims against them did not relocate at a greater rate than physicians who had fewer or no claims, the investigators wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine.

More claims against a doctor were associated with a higher likelihood of leaving medicine and more shifts into smaller practice settings. For instance, physicians with one claim had 9% higher odds of leaving the practice than doctors with no claims, and physicians with five or more claims had a 45% higher chance of leaving medicine than doctors with no claims, the researchers found.

In addition, investigators found that doctors with two to four claims had 50%-60% higher odds of entering solo practice than physicians with no claims, and physicians with five or more claims had nearly 150% higher odds of moving to solo practice than doctors who had never been sued. Physicians with three or more claims were more likely to be male, work in surgical specialties, and be at least age 50 years.

The study addresses concerns that physicians with troubling legal records were moving across state lines for a fresh start, Mr. Studdert said in an interview. “We were surprised to find that physicians who accumulated multiple malpractice claims were no more likely to relocate their practices than physicians without claims. The National Practitioner Data Bank probably has something to do with that.”

Established by Congress in 1986, the NPDB was started, in part, to restrict the ability of incompetent physicians to move across states to hide their track records. By requiring hospitals to query doctors records before granting them clinical privileges and encouraging physician groups, health plans, and professional societies to do the same, the NPDB has “almost certainly increased the difficulty of relocation for physicians with legal problems,” the authors noted in the study.

A primary takeaway from the analysis is that, while a single malpractice claim is a relatively weak signal that a quality problem exists, multiple paid claims over a relatively short period of time are a strong signal that a physician may have a quality deficiency, Mr. Studdert said in the interview.

“Regulators and malpractice insurers should be paying closer attention to this signal,” he added. “To the extent that physicians are aware of a colleague’s checkered malpractice history, they may have a role to play too. Vigilance about signs of further problems, for one, but also careful thought about the wisdom of referring patients to such physicians.”

Michelle M. Mello, JD, PhD, and Mr. Studdert both reported receiving grants from SUMIT Insurance during the conduct of the study.

Source: Studdert DM et al. N Engl J Med. 2019 Mar 28. doi: 10.1056/NEJMsa1809981.

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