An Overview of Liability Risks in Orthopedic Surgery

November 10, 2016 | Health System Risk Management


​​​Most orthopedic surgeons will face at least one malpractice claim in their careers (McGrory et al.; Jena et al.) Orthopedic surgeons who have been sued once are at higher risk of subsequent claims and lawsuits than many other specialists. As many as one-third of orthopedic surgeons have been involved in two or more malpractice claims (Studdert et al.)

Several survey reports of practicing orthopedic surgeons' experiences with medical error and malpractice litigation shed light on the nature and extent of the problem. Fifty-three percent of orthopedic surgeons responding to a survey issued to a mailing list of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) reported having made a medical error in the previous six months. Most frequently reported were errors related to equipment, communication, technical errors, and medication errors (Wong et al.). (See Figure 1. Categories of Medical Errors Occurring Most Frequently in Orthopedic Surgery and Figure 2. Providers Involved in Orthopedic Errors for more information. )

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In another survey of orthopedic surgeons, released in 2016, 60% of respondents reported having been sued for malpractice. Twenty-three percent of those respondents stated that the threat of another malpractice lawsuit affects them with every patient; 36% reported feeling affected almost all the time. Only 2% of respondents who had been sued reported they were not worried about the possibility of being sued again for malpractice. Reporting on their experiences of being sued, 46% of respondents described the experience as "very bad" or one of the worst experiences of their lives. (Peckham and Grisham)

A great majority of respondents who reported that they had been sued stated they were surprised by the lawsuit, although fewer male respondents (73%) were surprised than female respondents (88%). Just over half (51%) of respondents who reported being sued for malpractice believed that they had adhered to accepted standards of care and reported that they would not have changed anything. Thirty-four percent reported that since they were sued, they no longer trust patients and treat them differently from before they were sued. (Peckham and Grisham)

Sixty-six percent of the survey respondents reported a belief that orthopedic errors are rare. However, more than one-third admitted that some doctors are negligent and incompetent and should be held liable for patient harm. (Peckham...

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