BMJ Open 3:e002929 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2013-002929
  • General practice / Family practice
    • Research

The epidemiology of malpractice claims in primary care: a systematic review

  1. T Fahey1
  1. 1HRB Centre for Primary Care Research, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Medical School, Dublin, Ireland
  2. 2Department of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
  1. Correspondence to Dr Emma Wallace; emmawallace{at}
  • Received 22 March 2013
  • Accepted 17 May 2013
  • Published 18 July 2013


Objectives The aim of this systematic review was to examine the epidemiology of malpractice claims in primary care.

Design A computerised systematic literature search was conducted. Studies were included if they reported original data (≥10 cases) pertinent to malpractice claims, were based in primary care and were published in the English language. Data were synthesised using a narrative approach.

Setting Primary care.

Participants Malpractice claimants.

Primary outcome Malpractice claim (defined as a written demand for compensation for medical injury). We recorded: medical misadventure cited in claims, missed/delayed diagnoses cited in claims, outcome of claims, prevalence of claims and compensation awarded to claimants.

Results Of the 7152 articles retrieved by electronic search, a total of 34 studies met the inclusion criteria and were included in the narrative analysis. Twenty-eight studies presented data from medical indemnity malpractice claims databases and six studies presented survey data. Fifteen studies were based in the USA, nine in the UK, seven in Australia, one in Canada and two in France. The commonest medical misadventure resulting in claims was failure to or delay in diagnosis, which represented 26–63% of all claims across included studies. Common missed or delayed diagnoses included cancer and myocardial infarction in adults and meningitis in children. Medication error represented the second commonest domain representing 5.6–20% of all claims across included studies. The prevalence of malpractice claims in primary care varied across countries. In the USA and Australia when compared with other clinical disciplines, general practice ranked in the top five specialties accounting for the most claims, representing 7.6–20% of all claims. However, the majority of claims were successfully defended.

Conclusions This review of malpractice claims in primary care highlights diagnosis and medication error as areas to be prioritised in developing educational strategies and risk management systems.

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