Most medical malpractice cases in the United States are dismissed before trial, but cases may linger for months or years before dismissal, study results suggest.

In a review of more than 10,000 malpractice claims resolved between 2002 and 2005, only 55% of the total claims resulted in actual lawsuits and more than half of these claims were dismissed by the court, Anapum B. Jena, MD, PhD, of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston and colleagues reported in Archives of Internal Medicine.

Fewer than 5% of cases that went to court ended with a verdict, the researchers found, and verdicts favored the health-care provider approximately 80% of the time.

In addition to analyzing the proportion of medical malpractice claims resulting in litigation, the researchers also looked at litigated claims and resolution according to specialty, and the timeframe for resolving various types of claims.

“Part of what is surprising is how long this whole process takes,” the researchers wrote.

On average, more than 20 months passed before courts dismissed malpractice suits. Litigated suits that were resolved pre-verdict took more than 28 months to come to a point of decision. And cases that went through a full trial typically took more than three years — 39 months on average — when they were resolved in favor of the physician, and almost four years — 44 months — when the patient was the victor.

Internists and medicine-based subspecialists had the highest rate of dismissals (61.5%), whereas pathologists were least likely to have cases dismissed (36.5%). The researchers noted that this finding was not a surprise, as pathology lawsuits generally stem from the failure to diagnose a disease. Internists were not likely to face a jury with only 3% of their malpractice cases ending in a verdict. Falling beneath them were anesthesiologists with a mere 2% of cases ending in a jury decision. The frequency of claims ending in a trial verdict was low across specialties.

“When court cases last a long time, two groups of people are hurt — both patients and physicians. It’s also very difficult for physicians who have a malpractice case looming over their heads,” the researchers added.

Jena AB et al. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(11):892-894.