The doctor-patient relationship and malpractice. Lessons from plaintiff depositions

Arch Intern Med. 1994 Jun 27;154(12):1365-70.


Background: The current literature does not provide an answer to the question, "What prompts patients to sue doctors or hospitals?" Not all adverse outcomes result in suits, and threatened suits do not always involve adverse outcomes. The exploration of other factors has been hampered by the lack of a methodology to contact plaintiffs and elicit their views about their experience in delivered health care. This study employed the transcripts of discovery depositions of plaintiffs as a source of insight into the issues that prompted individuals to file a malpractice claim.

Methods: This study is a descriptive series review of a convenience sample of 45 plaintiffs' depositions selected randomly from 67 depositions made available from settled malpractice suits filed between 1985 and 1987 against a large metropolitan medical center. Information extracted from each deposition included the alleged injury; the presence of the question, "Why are you suing?" and, if present, the answer; the presence of problematic relationship issues between providers and patients and/or families and, if present, the discourse supporting it; the presence of the question, "Did a health professional suggest maloccurrence?" and, if yes, who. Using a process of consensual validation, relationship issues were organized into groups of more generalized categories suggested by the data. Answers to the questions, "Why are you suing?" and "Who suggested maloccurrence?" are described.

Results: Problematic relationship issues were identified in 71% of the depositions with an interrater reliability of 93.3%. Four themes emerged from the descriptive review of the 3787 pages of transcript: deserting the patient (32%), devaluing patient and/or family views (29%), delivering information poorly (26%), and failing to understand the patient and/or family perspective (13%). Thirty-one plaintiffs were asked if health professionals suggested maloccurrence. Fifty-four percent (n = 17) responded affirmatively. The postoutcome-consulting specialist was named in 71% (n = 12) of the depositions in which maloccurrence was allegedly suggested.

Conclusions: In our sample, the decision to litigate was often associated with a perceived lack of caring and/or collaboration in the delivery of health care. The issues identified included perceived unavailability, discounting patient and/or family concerns, poor delivery of information, and lack of understanding the patient and/or family perspective. Particular attention should be paid to the postadverse-event consultant-patient interaction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Communication
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Malpractice* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Middle Aged
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Professional-Family Relations