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Malpractice Suits Against Ob/Gyns Continue Downward Trend

Nearly 80% of obstetrician-gynecologists report having been named in at least one malpractice claim, but the total number who report such suits has fallen steadily since 2017, according to the Medscape Ob/Gyn Malpractice Report 2021.

Ob/gyns were the fifth most likely among practitioners in 29 specialties to be sued, and they are much more likely than the typical physician to be party to a malpractice case (51%), according to the new report. However, the number of ob/gyns who reported a malpractice suit has been dropping, from 85% in 2017 to 83% in 2019 to 79% in 2021. In most cases, multiple parties were named in the lawsuit (64%), although 27% of ob/gyns reported having been sued individually.

The most common reasons for lawsuits were complications from treatment/surgery (39%), poor outcome/disease progression (30%), failure to diagnose/delayed diagnosis (25%), patients suffering an abnormal injury (17%), and failure to treat/delayed treatment (16%).

The 2021 report was compiled from an online survey that included more than 4300 physicians representing 29 specialties; the survey was available from May 21 to August 28, 2021. Respondents include 314 ob/gyns. Most respondents had been in practice at least 25 years (60%), and 55% were at least 60 years old.

Ob/gyns carry higher malpractice insurance costs than nearly every other medical specialty, owing to the unique challenges and inherent risks of delivering newborn babies. In 2021, 33% of ob/gyns reported paying at least $30,000 in annual premiums, and only 27% said they paid less than $20,000. Over half of all specialists (52%) paid less than $20,000 in annual insurance premiums.

More than 70% of ob/gyns were “very” (32%) or “somewhat” surprised (40%) by their malpractice suits. A large majority said they believed the lawsuit was unwarranted (78%). One respondent wrote: “Feeling like I had done my best for the patient and she sued me anyway.”

Many cases settled before trial (40%), although some (12%) were still in process at the time of the survey. Other outcomes ranged from a judge or jury ruling on behalf of the physician (8%) or the lawsuit being dismissed within a few months of filing (8%). Ob/gyns reporting having lost 2% the suits.

The largest proportion of cases took less than 2 years (39%), although almost as many cases (33%) lasted between 3 and 5 years. Monetary awards to plaintiffs exceeded $1 million in 15% of cases that resulted in economic damages, with 8% of these awards exceeding $2 million. One in 5 awards were between $500,000 and $1 million.

Most ob/gyns (67%) say the lawsuit did not negatively affect their career. Roughly 1 in 5 ob/gyns (21%) said they now trusted their patients less than they did before the suit, modestly fewer than specialists overall (24%).

The largest proportion of ob/gyns (44%) say they would not have done anything differently, almost identical to the proportion of physicians overall (43%). Approximately 10% of ob/gyns said they would never have taken the patient in the first place, while 9% said they should have developed better chart documentation, and 8% said they should have referred the patient to another physician.

Marcus A. Banks, MA, is a journalist based in New York City who covers health news with a focus on new cancer research. His work appears in Medscape, Cancer Today, The Scientist, Gastroenterology and Endoscopy News, Slate, TCTMD, and Spectrum.

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