What predicts medical negligence claims for doctors in Australia?

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Medical negligence claims are an important issue within the healthcare system and can be used to signal poor standard of care or areas for improvement within healthcare practice. However, little is known about what predicts medical negligence claims beyond basic characteristics like age, sex, and prior complaints, which limits opportunities for intervention.

Factors such as job demands, social supports, family circumstances, and life satisfaction may all play a role in a doctor’s life leading up to medical negligence claims. A new study by Owen Bradfield, colleagues and Anthony Scott (PCHSS Research Stream 3.1) investigates these factors among others by using the longitudinal ‘Medicine in Australia: Balancing Employment and Life’ (MABEL) survey.

The study found that doctors with increased job demand, low self-rated life satisfaction and recent serious illness or injury were more likely to be sued in a medical negligence claim. This emphasises the role of workplace factors and personal wellbeing in the quality of care provided by practitioners.

Using the MABEL survey also allowed the authors to examine differences in predictors between male and females, which is important given that being male has previously been associated with negligence claims. Interestingly, low self-rated life satisfaction was only a risk factor in claims for male doctors, whereas females were more likely to get sued if they were working full-time or overtime hours. As the first paper to adjust for differences in sex, the authors were not able to make any definitive claims about why this occurred, but it highlights that issues of gender equality or invisible work within the home may also impact the services provided by healthcare professionals.

Critically, the psychosocial and work-related risk factors identified in this paper are able to be changed. By recognising the impact of work demands, life satisfaction and general personal wellbeing, the results of this study clearly alert us to the need for preventative efforts to improve the workplace support and quality of treatment for doctors.

By targeting these risk factors with interventions and support systems, the incidence of medical negligence claims may reduce within Australia. Quality of care of doctors and quality of care of patients seem to be intrinsically linked, therefore it is imperative that we take this evidence on board so that patients, doctors, and the wider community can feel confident within the healthcare system.

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