Bariatric surgeons are at a higher risk of being named in a malpractice lawsuit than other specialists. By knowing the surgical and diagnostic incidents that are most likely to trigger malpractice allegations, bariatric surgeons can better understand the risks of their specialty and how to proactively address them.

Bariatric Surgeons Save Lives

According to data reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the prevalence of obesity in the U.S. increased to 41.9% of the population as of 2020. Obesity can exacerbate serious comorbidities that contribute to chronic illness and premature death, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer.

Bariatric surgeons are at the forefront of shrinking the obesity epidemic in the U.S.

Such preventable underlying conditions can often be improved or reversed – and rapid weight loss achieved – when the patient’s obesity is treated with gastric bypass surgery or one of the other commonly performed bariatric surgical procedures.

Malpractice Risk is High for Bariatric Surgeons

Bariatric surgery can be life-changing when other methods of weight loss have failed. However, along with the reward of weight loss come the risks of common side effects with the potential to develop rapidly into painful, sometimes chronic, and even fatal complications.

Whether these complications develop due to intraoperative errors, iatrogenic patient injuries, or failure to catch and treat a post-op infection, bariatric surgeons are at a higher risk of being named in a malpractice lawsuit compared to other types of specialists.

For example, a Texas jury awarded the family of a gastric bypass surgery patient a $14.1 million verdict in 2020. The suit claimed that a post-operative severe vitamin B1 deficiency caused permanent brain damage requiring lifelong 24/7 care, but the patient died prior to the close of the case. The court found negligence by the treating physician and medical group in identifying and treating the B1 deficiency. However, the bariatric surgeon in the suit was also held liable for “triggering” the deficiency by performing the gastric bypass surgery.

As an independent medical malpractice broker, I recommend that bariatric surgeons obtain robust medical malpractice insurance from an AM Best “A” rated carrier to protect them against lengthy malpractice litigation and high-dollar payouts.

Top 3 Triggers of Bariatric Malpractice Claims

As the demand continues to grow for bariatric surgeons to perform highly specialized weight loss surgeries, its imperative that your practice develops a comprehensive risk management strategy to support improved patient outcomes, and as a result, reduce your risk of being sued for malpractice.

Below, you’ll find the results of recent bariatric malpractice claim studies to help you understand the risks of your specialty and how to proactively address them.

The following surgical and diagnostic incidents have been found to be the most likely to trigger bariatric malpractice allegations:

1. Improper surgical performance

Surgical errors and complications caused by improper surgical technique and decisions were cited in 94% of the cases reviewed in a recent study by “A” rated malpractice insurance carrier MedPro Group.

Lack of identifying and treating the following complications of laparoscopic sleeve gastrectomy (LSG) were among the most common allegations in the study – perforation of the bowel, and lacerations and slippage of the gastric bands.

Other surgical complications commonly leading to allegations of malpractice include:

  • Infection

  • Hernia

  • Hemorrhage

  • Bowel obstructions

  • Gastritis

  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea

  • Anastomotic strictures, ulcers, and leaks

  • Deficiencies and poor absorption of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients

2. Poor management of surgical patients

The MedPro study also revealed a strong connection between incidents of surgical errors and the timeliness of the surgeon’s response to developing complications. 81% of malpractice claims in the study arose from occurrences of critical patient outcomes due to poor clinical judgment.

These included pulmonary emboli and infections, due to the surgeon’s failure to quickly recognize, treat, and mitigate bowel perforations, anastomotic leaks, and other common complications of bariatric surgery.

3. Diagnostic errors and poor communication

Another study of bariatric surgery malpractice claims published in the Journal of Gastrointestinal Surgery cited that delay in diagnosing or managing anastomotic leaks as the cause of postoperative complications was the leading cause in 65% of the malpractice claims.

Other causes leading to allegations of incorrect or delayed diagnosis include: inadequate patient history or physical exam; failure to order the correct diagnostic tests; delays in receiving and/or reviewing test results; failure or delay in obtaining specialty consults.

The MedPro study found that poor communication among physicians, patients, and care teams was a key factor leading to both diagnostic errors/delays and improper management of surgical patients – and the third most common reason for the malpractice lawsuits in the study.

Fine Tune Your Bariatric Medical Malpractice Risk Management Strategy

Reducing your risk of being sued for malpractice starts with a comprehensive risk management strategy across every aspect of your practice. Based on the study data, MedPro study offers these risk management recommendations for bariatric surgeons:

  • Continually re-assess your surgical skills and competency to stay up to date with new procedures and surgical equipment. Allegations of improper surgical technique was the top reason for malpractice claims in the MedPro study.

  • Early identification and treatment of anastomotic leaks, bowel perforations, vitamin deficiencies, and other common postoperative complications can potentially reduce malpractice claims related to critical patient outcomes of bariatric surgery. Establish and maintain a comprehensive and consistent procedure for post-surgical patient assessment.

  • Ensure that the patient is a suitable candidate for bariatric surgery. Reduce the risk of misdiagnosis or missing any underlying medical conditions by confirming that all test results and evaluations have been ordered, documented, and reviewed.

  • To reduce incidents of diagnostic errors and missed post-op complications, foster active communication and collaboration with the entire surgical care team to coordinate patient care before, during, and after surgery.

  • Be diligent in documenting records of pre-operative assessments, intra-operative steps, and the sequence of post-operative events. In case of a malpractice claim, having complete and comprehensive documentation will help your lawyers build a stronger defense.

Need Medical Malpractice Insurance for Your Bariatric Surgery Practice? SURGPLI can Help.

Our experienced insurance brokers understand the robust coverage requirements of malpractice insurance for bariatric surgeons. Let SURGPLI help you choose the right policy for your needs from AM Best “A” rated carriers. Get a fast quote or call 1-800-969-1339

SURGPLI is a division of MEDPLI, an independent insurance brokerage that specializes in making medical malpractice insurance simple for doctors.

Max Schloemann

About the Author

Max Schloemann is a medical malpractice insurance broker, focused on helping physicians secure Medical Professional Liability coverage. He helps Doctors and Surgeons, as well as Physician Assistants, Nurse Practitioners, and healthcare entrepreneurs launch new medical practices across the country. Max graduated Magna cum Laude from Southern Illinois University College of Business and was named the Outstanding Management Senior. Max’s career in medical malpractice insurance began in 2008 with an industry-leading firm. Max founded SURGPLI in 2023 to help surgeons navigate the complexities of medical malpractice insurance in the new era of healthcare. Max’s wife, Kristen, a Physician Assistant, and their 4 kids (plus 1 dog) enjoy hiking, golf, and cooking.

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