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Male Doctors Much More Likely to Face Medico-Legal Action than Females

LONDON – Physicians with Y chromosomes are nearly two and half times more likely to have medico-legal action taken against them than their female counterparts, according to a British study that looked at the issue globally.

The study, published online by BMC Medicine, suggests that a better understanding of why men are more likely to be the targets of everything from being sued to having their licenses revoked could improve patient safety and provide more support for doctors who need it.

“There was significant heterogeneity in the meta-analysis but this was not due to differences in the direction of the effects – no studies found that women were more likely than men to experience medico-legal action,” write the authors led by University College London researchers. “The size of the effect of sex on experience of medico-legal action remained roughly constant in all subgroup analyses, suggesting that the effect of sex is not influenced by the study design, the country the doctor is in employed in, or the outcome definition, and the effect seems stable over time.”

Background information in the article notes that the number of medico-legal actions taken against physicians is on the increase; between 2008 and 2012, the United States saw a 17% increase in the number of medical licenses that have been revoked, denied or suspended, while the United Kingdom reported a 64% increase in official complaints about doctor’s care between 2010 and 2013.

To look at differences in medico-legal action by sex on an international level and whether the trends had changed over time, the researchers conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis. Overall, 32 studies were identified, with 40,246 cases of medico-legal action.

For the research, medico-legal action was divided into six categories:

  • disciplinary action taken against a doctor by a medical regulatory board
  • malpractice claims/cases
  • complaints received by non-regulatory bodies that investigate healthcare complaints
  • criminal cases
  • medico-legal matter with a medical defense organization, which grouped together several medico-legal action types

Study authors rejected the hypothesis that male doctors are more likely to experience medico-legal action because more of them are practicing medicine.

“The demographics of doctors in the UK and USA have been changing, with increasing numbers of women choosing to follow medicine as a career,” they write. “Our results suggest that the effect of male sex on experiencing medico-legal actions has remained fairly constant over the last 15 years (OR, 2.25–2.45), despite the increasing trend of women doctors … We therefore feel one can no longer argue that male doctors are more likely to face medico-legal action because there are more male doctors practicing. If this were the case, we would expect the effect size to diminish over time, to reflect the increasing number of female doctors.”

They call for more research to determine if there is any association with male physicians’ longer work hours and, therefore, more frequent interactions with patients.