What Are the Main Reasons Patients Sue Dermatologists?

PHOENIX — Of the federal and state malpractice lawsuits filed against dermatologists between 2011 and 2022, half were related to accidental injury, followed by incorrect or delayed diagnoses, and the defendants were more likely to be male.

Those are among key findings from a study that aimed to determine the reasons patients pursue litigation against dermatologists.

“The number of lawsuits against physicians continues to climb annually,” Young Lim, MD, PhD, said at the annual conference of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery, where the results were presented during an abstract session. “Depending on the study, anywhere between 75 to 99 percent of physicians will face a lawsuit by age 65. A clear understanding of prior litigations will help mitigate similar errors in future practice and promote safer, higher quality care.”

Dr. Lim, a dermatology resident at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, along with Mathew M. Avram, MD, JD, director of laser, cosmetics, and dermatologic surgery at MGH, and H. Ray Jalian, MD, a cosmetic dermatologist who practices in Los Angeles, used two large national database repositories, WestlawNext and LexisNexis, to retrospectively analyze legal documents following a query using “dermatology” and “dermatologist” as search terms to capture all variety of litigations. They excluded cases in which litigation did not involve patient care as well as those in which the dermatologist was the plaintiff and those in which the dermatologist was involved as a third party.

The final analysis consisted of 54 claims, comprising 43 state and 11 federal cases. Of the 54 cases, 35 involved a male defendant, 12 involved a female defendant, and 7 cases either did not specify the gender of the defendant or involved multiple defendants. Of the 35 cases involving a male defendant, 23 (66%) were brought by female plaintiffs.

Most cases (49, or 91%) involved a defendant dermatologist in private practice while the remaining 5 involved a defendant dermatologist in an academic setting.

The most common reason for litigation was accidental injury (27 cases, or 50%), followed by incorrect or delayed diagnoses (22 cases, or 41%). Five cases resulted from the dermatologist failing to communicate important information, such as postop care instructions or obtaining informed consent.

Of all 54 cases 30 (56%) were dismissed prior to trial, while 24 (44%) resulted in a judgment for the plaintiff. According to Dr. Lim, payout information was available for only five cases, and ranged from $15,000 (injury from laser) to $1,950,000 (delayed diagnosis of malignant melanoma).

“While lawsuits from patients against dermatologists largely involve injury from elective procedures, clinicians should practice caution regarding missed or delayed diagnoses when practicing medical dermatology,” the authors concluded in their abstract. “Ensuring that critical information is shared with patients and obtaining proper written consent will also safeguard against easily-avoidable litigations.”

Christopher B. Zachary, MBBS, professor and chair emeritus of the department of dermatology at the University of California, Irvine, who was asked to comment on the study, said that the findings are a reminder that lack of attention to the most simply performed aspects of care can be the reasons patients will seek medical malpractice redress.

“Consent requires careful and thoughtful explanation of a planned procedure, which should then be recorded in the chart to avoid future confusion,” Dr. Zachary told this news organization. “A patient’s signature on a consent form obtained by a staff member is clearly inadequate if not accompanied by a clear and understandable preoperative discussion. Words, images, video are all elements that aid patients’ comprehension of a planned procedure. And postoperative instructions given to the patients while on the laser table are commonly forgotten by the patient and must be accompanied by written advice summary. Patients will frequently misremember instructions and can be overwhelmed by medical jargon.”

Neither the researchers nor Dr. Zachary reported having relevant financial disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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