Examining Malpractice Risk to Physicians

Psychiatric TimesVol 40, Issue 9

An estimated 31% of physicians have been sued at some point in their careers. Here's what you need to know.



Although physicians have a relatively low chance of being sued over a short term, the longer they practice, the greater the chance of a legal claim, according to findings from the American Medical Association (AMA).1 The study further noted that most lawsuits end with no finding of negligence or error.

An estimated 31% of physicians have been sued at some point in their careers, the study authors reported. Claim frequency varied by specialty, gender, and age.

“Even the most highly qualified and competent physicians in the US may face a medical liability claim in their careers; however, getting sued is not indicative of medical errors,” then-AMA President Jack Resneck Jr, MD, said in a news release.2 “All medical care comes with risks, yet physicians are willing to perform high-risk procedures that offer hope of relief from debilitating symptoms or life-threatening conditions,” he added.

Examining Overall Risk

In 2022, 1.8% of physicians reported they were sued in the previous year. That figure was down from 2.4% in 2018 and 2.1% in 2020.

From 2016 to 2018, 65% of claims closed because they were dropped, dismissed, or withdrawn. Among the 6% of cases that were decided at trial, the defendants won 89% of them.

The Impact of Age on Risk

“Longer-term risk of getting sued increases with age,” the paper reported. “This is not surprising given that physicians with more years in practice have had more exposure to risk.”

The study found 46.8% of physicians 54 years or older had been sued versus 9.5% of physicians 40 years or younger. On average, physicians 54 years or older had a 1:1 claim rate (100 claims per 100 physicians), whereas physicians 40 years or younger had 11 claims per 100 physicians.

In psychiatry, 0.0% of surveyed clinicians had been sued in the previous year, whereas 10.9% had been sued at some point. Those in general surgery had the highest previous year sue rate (7.9%), and those in obstetrics/gynecology had the highest rate of ever being sued (62.4%). Allergists/immunologists and hematologists/oncologists had the lowest rates of legal claims at 7% and 8%, respectively. “It seems to be just a matter of time or, more specifically, of longer exposure before a physician is sued,” the study reported.

Sex Matters

Female physicians face lower liability risk than male physicians (23.8% versus 36.8%). Women had fewer claims per 100 physicians than men (42 vs 75 for men). Female physicians were less likely to be sued than male physicians, even when controlling for age and specialty.

Out on Your Own

Employed physicians had lower claim frequencies than practice owners. From 2020 to 2022, 1.7% of employed physicians were sued the previous year compared with 2.3% of practice owners. The study author noted the regression analysis showed there may have been other factors at play.

The AMA also published “Medical Liability Reform Now! 2023,” a 35-page guide summarizing various initiatives to change “the broken medical liability system.”3


1. Guardado JR. Policy research perspectives: medical liability claim frequency among U.S. physicians. American Medical Association. Accessed August 3, 2023. https://www.ama-assn.org/system/files/policy-research-perspective-medical-liability-claim-frequency.pdf

2. AMA: one in three physicians previously sued in their career. News release. American Medical Association. May 10, 2023. Accessed August 3, 2023. https://www.ama-assn.org/press-center/press-releases/ama-one-three-physicians-previously-sued-their-career

3. Medical liability reform now! 2023. American Medical Association. Accessed August 3, 2023. https://www.ama-assn.org/system/files/mlr-now.pdf

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