Doctor Specialties at Greatest Risk for Medical Malpractice Claims

Doctors who work in high-risk specialties, like surgeons, are practically guaranteed to face a medical malpractice claim during their careers, according to a 2011 study by the New England Journal of Medicine. The study, which analyzed malpractice claims from a large liability insurer over a period of 14 years ending in 2005, found that 99% of doctors in high-risk specialties, like neurosurgeons, thoracic-cardiovascular surgeons, and general surgeons, were likely to face a claim by age 65. In contrast, only 75% of physicians in low-risk specialties could expect a claim during their career.

Annually, only 7.4 % of doctors across all specialties faced a malpractice claim, according to the study, but within that percentage there was a significant variation between specialties. Neurosurgeons were most likely to face a claim at 19.1%, with thoracic-cardiovascular surgeons and general surgeons close behind, at 18.9% and 15.3%, respectively. Less likely to face a claim were lower-risk specialties like family medicine (5.2%), pediatrics (3.1%) and psychiatry (2.6%). Additionally the study found that within the percentage of doctors facing claims annually, only 1.6% of the claims were compensated.

In regards to payment of claims, the study discovered that there was no correlation between the specialties with the highest number of claims and the highest average payment. For example, although neurosurgeons faced the highest number of claims in a year, their average payment was calculated at $344,811, as opposed to the average payment for a claim against a pediatrician, calculated at $520,924. Additionally, payments exceeding $1 million, defined in the study as outliers and accounting for less than 1% of all payments, were mostly attributed to lower-risk specialties including obstetrics/gynecology, pathology, and pediatrics.

In 2011, the Illinois Department of Insurance conducted its own study of Illinois medical malpractice claims by specialty based on data from 2005 through 2008. According to the study, the department found that the following four specialties accounted for 62% of medical malpractice claims: surgery other than obstetric, internal medicine, obstetrics & gynecology. Surgery other than obstetrical accounted for 28% of all claims.


New England Journal Of Medicine, Malpractice Risk According To Physician Specialty, August 18, 2011.

The Wall Street Journal, Are You a Surgeon? Sorry, You’re Going to Face a Malpractice Claim by Age 65, August 17, 2011

Illinois Department of Insurance, Medical Malpractice Claims Study, June 2011,