According to research from insurance carrier The Doctors Company, the frequency and complexity of orthopedic surgery procedures increases an orthopedic surgeon’s exposure to medical malpractice litigation.

The most common triggers for orthopedic surgery medical malpractice claims are:

  • “An aggravated or worsened preoperative condition”, including pain, mobility, nerve damage, and postoperative pain
  • Misinterpreting CT scans and other diagnostic scans
  • Performing surgery on the wrong body part
  • Implants inserted incorrectly
  • Failure of implant components
  • Postoperative implant or prosthesis infections
  • Increased risk of bleeding in spinal surgeries and total joint replacement
  • Neurovascular injury to nerves or blood vessels around the knee
  • Sciatic nerve injury in hip replacements
  • Failure to achieve pain relief
  • Deep vein thrombosis developing into pulmonary embolism in total hip and knee replacements and hip fracture procedures
  • Failure to identify surgical site infections and other post-surgical complications

This article takes a closer look at the surgical complications most often named in malpractice claims and discusses ways to potentially reduce the risks for patients and surgeons alike.

Understand the Risk for Orthopedic Surgeon Malpractice Suits

Orthopedic surgery can be life-changing for persons with chronic joint pain and limited mobility.  According to an iData Research report, orthopedic surgeons in the U.S. perform over 1 million total knee and hip replacements annually, plus an estimated 1.62 million spinal procedures and over 300,000 interbody fusions.

However, orthopedic surgeons rank among the top 10 surgical specialties most likely to be sued for malpractice. The nature of the high-risk surgeries on the spine, knees, hips, hands, and feet in particular place high expectations for achieving the best outcomes of pain relief and restoring mobility. Because these procedures affect the patient’s ability to stand, walk, and perform everyday tasks, inter-operative and post-surgical complications can be devastating to the patient’s physical well-being and quality of life. 

Ironically, the types of orthopedic surgeries that are sought out most often by patients suffering back pain or joint issues are among the riskiest: total knee and hip replacement, spinal fusion and laminectomy, and procedures on the hand and foot. Specific types of orthopedic issues or injuries presented by the patient, along with the complexity of the surgeries to correct them, makes orthopedic surgeons more vulnerable to potentially being sued, including:

  • Spinal stenosis
  • Herniated lumbar disk
  • Compression of nerves in the lower spine
  • Knee ligament damage or injury
  • Hip fracture
  • Achilles tendon rupture
  • Scaphoid fractures of the wrist

According to the Medscape Orthopedist Malpractice Report 2021, surgical complications and injuries were indicated by 54% of the respondents as the primary reason for a malpractice suit against them. Poor surgical outcomes were the second most common reason, with failure or delay in diagnosing as the third. Orthopedic conditions most commonly misdiagnosed include ACL tears, Achilles tendon ruptures, femoral neck stress fractures, and scaphoid fractures.

How Orthopedic Surgeons Can Reduce the Risk of Malpractice and Improve Patient Outcomes

All surgeries carry some risk for the patient, and even the most experienced and skilled surgeons encounter unexpected surgical complications. Engaging an experienced medical malpractice insurance broker to find the right coverage for your surgical specialty and practice is the first step in mitigating your professional and personal financial risk.

The Medscape Orthopedist Malpractice Report 2021  indicated that monetary awards of $100,000 to $500,000 were paid in orthopedic malpractice cases that were either settled or found in the plaintiff’s favor at trial. Plaintiffs were awarded up to $2.37 million in cases in which orthopedic sports medicine surgeons were sued for interoperative error. 

Based on malpractice claim studies by The Doctors Company, here are a few other ways that you can potentially reduce some of the risk factors and improve outcomes for your orthopedic patients – and reduce your own exposure to malpractice suits.

  • Create a “prescreening” protocol in which you focus on “modifiable risk factors” and set expectations for surgical outcomes with the patient and family members. Talk to patients to confirm that they understand the risks and give informed consent. Overall, build a trusted relationship with each patient, and foster timely and responsive communication between the patient and your practice.
  • Keep meticulous records of every patient encounter, pre- and post-surgery. Document all treatments, procedures, and outcomes in the patient’s medical record precisely and in a timely manner. If you are sued for malpractice, lawyers will want to review all of the medical records pertaining to the claim. It’s to your advantage to have them well-documented and complete.

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

At SURGPLI, our brokers understand the specific medical malpractice insurance needs of orthopedic surgeons. Whether you need a policy for a new practice or need tail coverage as you transition to another policy, SURGPLI has the experts and resources to help you make the best choice of carrier and coverage. Call us at 1-800-969-1339 or contact us here.

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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