Three in four US doctors face at least one malpractice claim during their career and only about 20 percent of cases result in cash payments, reveals study.
The analysis by researchers at several major US medical schools and the RAND Corporation, a nonrofit research group, was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
"Naturally, physicians in each specialty believe they are getting sued more often than average. But while anecdotes abound, actual facts on who is getting sued and for how much have been unavailable until now," said lead author Anupam Jena of the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Medicine.
The study analyzed claims information from 1991 to 2005 from a major malpractice insurer, covering almost 41,000 physicians across the United States.
"During each year of the study period, 7.4 percent of all physicians had a claim filed against them, but only 1.6 percent made a malpractice payment," said the study.
Specialities were divided into categories: high-risk included neurosurgery (19.1 percent), cardiovascular surgery (18.9 percent) and general surgery (15.3 percent).
Family medicine (5.2 percent) pediatrics (3.1 percent) and psychiatry (2.6 percent) were low-risk.
Doctors in the high-risk group were 99 percent sure to face a malpractice lawsuit at some point in their careers, compared to 75 percent in the low-risk groups.
"It is a near certainty that, over a lengthy career, a physician in a high-risk specialty will be accused of malpractice, but the vast majority of these suits will be unsuccessful," said co-author Seth Seabury of the RAND Corporation.
Even though the high-risk specialties faced more lawsuits, they were not more likely to pay claims than low-risk doctors.
Twenty percent of all claims resulted in some form of payment -- the average amount being $275,000 -- either by court judgment or settlement.
"We were surprised that the probability of facing at least one malpractice claim over the average physician's career was so high and particularly that so many claims did not result in payment," said co-author Amitabh Chandra at the Harvard Kennedy School.