During an average career spanning 40 years, clinicians will spend more than 10% of the time with an open, unresolved malpractice claim, researchers estimate.

The bulk of the time is spent on claims that are later dropped, dismissed or never result in payment, Anupam B. Jena, MD, PhD, assistant professor of healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School, in Boston and colleagues, report in Health Affairs.

They analyzed data from 40,916 clinicians covered by nationwide insurer in order to better understand how the amount of time claims take to be adjudicated affects healthcare providers.

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The average clinician spends approximately 50.7 months with an unresolved, open malpractice claim, the researchers found. Clinicians in high-risk fields, such as neurosurgery, spent even longer waiting for malpractice cases to be resolved — an average of 10 years — whereas those in psychiatry spent the least amount of time fighting malpractice claims — an average of just 16 months.

Even lawsuits that are dismissed prior to trial can take about two years to resolve, and cases that settle out of court typically take between two and three years. Cases that actually go to a jury trial can take as long as five years to be resolved.

Efforts to improve the medical malpractice system need to focus on not just capping damage awards, but reducing the time needed to resolve malpractice claims, the researchers recommended. A well-functioning medical malpractice system should compensate patients who have suffered harm both fairly and quickly, and a five-year wait is too long for both parties.

They recommended shifting to an alternative dispute resolution process, which proactively looks for errors, discloses them to patients, and uses a central review committee to resolve disputes and recommend compensation when there is fault. A program at the University of Michigan Health System based on this model decreased the time needed to resolve claims and reduced total liability costs, they noted.

It is “important to assess malpractice reforms by how well they are able to reduce the time of malpractice litigation without undermining the needs of the affected patient,” the researchers wrote.


  1. Seabury SA et al. Health Affairs. 2013; 32(1):111-119.