A new study published in the Journal of Law and Economics (2009;54:635-663) has revealed that physicians work fewer hours when their risk of litigation increases. Researchers Eric Helland, of Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and Mark H. Showalter, of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, found that physicians work an average of 1.7 hours less per week when their expected medical liability risk rises by just 10%.

The researchers calculated that a reduction of 1.7 hours per week is the same as “one in 35 physicians leaving a workforce entirely, or about 21,000 physicians.”

The study was conducted using data about medical liability risk in each state gathered from insurers. Data was broken down by specialty, and physicians were surveyed about workload and income. The study also found that older physicians (aged 55 years and older), and those with their own practice were more likely to be affected by increased liability risk. 

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Just as the increase in medical liability risk resulted in decreased physician hours, the opposite was true as well. Results indicated that when liability risk decreased, for example when tort reforms such as caps on damages were enacted, physicians saw more patients per week.