Unhappy, overworked doctors more likely to be sued for malpractice

MELBOURNE, Australia — Doctors are people like everyone else, and they have bad days like the rest of us. Unfortunately, new research suggests sometimes that becomes a problem for their patients. Scientists at the University of Melbourne report Australian doctors are more likely to face a lawsuit for malpractice if they’re unhappy or overworked.

The study finds patients were also more likely to sue doctors working in more rural areas, as well as those who have recently suffered an injury or illness. What can protect doctors from the courtroom? Study authors say physicians with especially agreeable personalities are much less likely to be sued.

“This allowed us to analyze and correlate work, health and personality factors with a doctor’s risk of being sued,” research leader Dr. Bradfield says in a university release.

1 in 20 doctors have faced claims of medical negligence

These findings are based on responses collected from over 12,000 Australian doctors taking the Medicine in Australia Balancing Employment and Life (MABEL) survey between 2013 and 2018. Each doctor answered various questions ranging from their ages and genders to personality traits, health, life satisfaction, working conditions, medical specialty, and any prior lawsuits involving their practice.

Overall, just over five percent of the doctors told researchers they were a defendant in a medical negligence claim in the past. Notably, more male doctors reported prior lawsuits than female MDs.

“It is critical that we try to better understand why some doctors are sued. A mistake by a doctor can have tragic consequences for patients and can be costly for the health system,” Dr. Bradfield adds.

“Patients who suffer harm from a medical error can sue the doctor concerned in order to seek redress, answers, and assurances that mistakes will not be repeated.  Therefore, understanding why that doctor made a mistake and was sued can help us reduce medical errors and improve healthcare quality.”

Which doctors are the most likely to face legal problems?

Researchers explain that earlier studies have found older, male doctors who performed surgeries and who had prior complaints in the past are the highest risk group when it comes to litigation.

“However, because not all older male surgeons are actually sued, we suspected that work, health, and personality factors might also hold the key to explaining these differences,” explains study co-author Professor Matthew Spittal.

Doctors are supposed to take care of the rest of us, but these findings serve as a reminder that even MDs and PhDs need a little rest from time to time.

“We need to reduce doctor fatigue by addressing long working hours. We also need to create supportive work environments and target interventions that improve doctors’ overall wellbeing, such as through healthy lifestyle and positive psychology programs. This could reduce the risk of doctors being sued, and improve patient safety,” Dr. Bradfield concludes.

The study is published in the British Medical Journal.

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