While the total number of malpractice claims has fallen over the past decade, the risk still lingers for physicians, with 154,621 paid claims between 2004 and 2014 (or about 38 a day) listed by the National Practitioner Data Bank.
And despite the drop in total claims, the size of the ones actually paid has been climbing slightly, said Dr. Anupam Jena, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School who studies malpractice.
“It could certainly be that overall quality of care is improving,” Jena said of why total claims have fallen, or it could be that lawyers are focusing more on winnable and larger suits, which could explain the swelling of individual payouts.
However, if recent history’s trend holds true, health care could indeed soon see a spike in quantity of paid claims, said Michelle Mello, a Stanford professor of law and health research and policy who also studies malpractice. Such an uptick happened in the mid-‘80s and again around the turn of the century, she said, so the U.S. might be due for another.
“About every 15 years, there’s spike in them, and then things calm down after three or four years,” Mello said, adding that there’s no precise explanation for the cycle. “And we’ve been on a downtick for a while.”