Practice Management

Hospitalists and medical malpractice


Applying insights from malpractice claims analysis to clinical practice

The systematic review of malpractice cases to determine the contributing factors and other case attributes is an important source of patient safety insights. The process breakdowns described by the contributing factors can inform the design of patient safety initiatives. In addition, malpractice data provides information on which specialties and what types of clinicians are being named together in malpractice claims.

In the hospitalist malpractice study, in addition to general surgery and orthopedic surgery, the other clinical services most commonly subject to claims along with hospitalists were nursing, emergency medicine, and cardiology. Another observation was that physician assistants and nurse practitioners are increasingly being named in hospitalist claims. This information is crucial to guiding who needs to be in the room with hospitalists when efforts are undertaken to enhance patient safety within hospital medicine.

An understandable response to the finding that hospitalist claims rates are not decreasing is for hospitalists to seek ways to lower their risk of being named in a malpractice claim. Of course, avoiding adverse events by providing the safest possible care is paramount. Even when patients do suffer adverse events due to a physician negligence, only rarely, less than 5% of the time, does this result in a malpractice claim.10 Important lessons in risk management can be learned from examining why patients decide to sue when mistakes lead to bad outcomes.

An analysis of plaintiffs’ depositions found that the key reasons that patients decided to file a malpractice claim include a poor relationship with the physician – specifically, a lack of empathy from the physician, feeling deserted by the physician, and feeling devalued by the physician.11 These findings support the use of programs that assist physicians in compassionately disclosing adverse events to patients. Among inpatient physicians, patient satisfaction survey questions about the time the physician spent with the patient and the physician’s concern for the patient are better predictors of the physicians’ risk management performance than is the question about the skill of the physician.12 In the aftermath of an adverse event, focusing on maintaining a strong patient-physician relationship is not only the right the thing to do, the data tell us that it is also a sensible approach to reducing medicolegal risk.

Dr. Schaffer practices as a member of the Hospital Medicine Unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, where he serves as an attending physician on the inpatient general medicine services. An instructor at Harvard Medical School, his academic interests include research using large medical malpractice databases to examine temporal trends in medical malpractice.


1. Rothberg MB, et al. The cost of defensive medicine on 3 hospital medicine services. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(11):1867-1868. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.4649.

2. Kachalia A, et al. Overuse of testing in preoperative evaluation and syncope: A survey of hospitalists. Ann Intern Med. 2015;162(2):100-108. doi: 10.7326/M14-0694.

3. Mello MM, et al. National costs of the medical liability system. Health Aff (Millwood). 2010;29(9):1569-1577. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2009.0807.

4. Schaffer AC, et al. Rates and characteristics of paid malpractice claims among U.S. physicians by specialty, 1992-2014. JAMA Intern Med. 2017;177(5):710-718. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2017.0311.

5. Schaffer AC, et al. Liability impact of the hospitalist model of care. J Hosp Med. 2014;9(12):750-755. doi: 10.1002/jhm.2244.

6. Schaffer AC, et al. Rates and characteristics of medical malpractice claims against hospitalists. J Hosp Med. 2021 Jul;16(7):390-396. doi: 10.12788/jhm.3557.

7. Poon EG. Clinical decision support: a tool of the hospital trade. J Hosp Med. 2015;10(1):60-61. doi: 10.1002/jhm.2295.

8. Makam AN, Nguyen OK, Auerbach AD. Diagnostic accuracy and effectiveness of automated electronic sepsis alert systems: A systematic review. J Hosp Med. 2015;10(6):396-402. doi: 10.1002/jhm.2347.

9. Starmer AJ, et al. Changes in medical errors after implementation of a handoff program. N Engl J Med. 2014;371(19):1803-1812. doi: 10.1056/NEJMsa1405556.

10. Localio AR, et al. Relation between malpractice claims and adverse events due to negligence. Results of the Harvard Medical Practice Study III. N Engl J Med. 1991;325(4):245-251. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199107253250405.

11. Beckman HB, et al. The doctor-patient relationship and malpractice. Lessons from plaintiff depositions. Arch Intern Med. 1994;154(12):1365-1370. doi:10.1001/archinte.1994.00420120093010.

12. Stelfox HT, et al. The relation of patient satisfaction with complaints against physicians and malpractice lawsuits. Am J Med. 2005;118(10):1126-1133. doi: 10.1016/j.amjmed.2005.01.060.


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