Study purpose: To describe the characteristics of malpractice claims against emergency physicians and to identify causes and potential preventability of such claims.
Population: Malpractice claims closed in 1988, 1989, and 1990 against emergency physicians insured by the Massachusetts Joint Underwriters Association were compared with claims closed from 1980 to 1987 as investigated in our previous study.
Methods: Retrospective review of malpractice claim files by board-certified emergency physicians.
Results: The average indemnity and expense per claim were higher in the current study population than in our previous study population (P = .05). Claims in eight high-risk diagnostic areas (chest pain, abdominal pain, fractures, wounds, pediatric fever/meningitis, subarachnoid hemorrhage, aortic aneurysm, and epiglottitis) accounted for 50.8% of claims in this study and 55.5% of total monetary losses. Four claims in this study were related to two instances of failure of an emergency department radiograph follow-up system. The evaluation of patients who were intoxicated contributed to major monetary losses, especially in cases of fractures and head injury.
Conclusion: Emergency physicians must have a particular awareness of their great risk exposure for missed myocardial infarction. Addition of dictation or voice-activated record generation systems, departmental protocols for radiograph follow-ups, and holding and re-evaluation of the intoxicated patient will help provide systems supports for reducing the liability of individual emergency physicians.