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Pravesh S. Gadjradj, Julian B. Ghobrial, and Biswadjiet S. Harhangi

OBJECTIVE

As a specialty that treats acute pathology and refractory pain, neurosurgery is at risk for high liability, making the practice of defensive medicine quite common. The extent to which the practice of defensive medicine is linked to experience with malpractice lawsuits remains unclear. The aims of this study were to clarify this by surveying neurosurgeons about the frequency of experiencing medical lawsuits and to show how neurosurgeons reflect on facing such lawsuits.

METHODS

A survey consisting of 24 questions was distributed among members of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons. The survey consisted of four parts: 1) demographics of participants; 2) the way malpractice lawsuits affect the way respondents practice medicine; 3) experiences with medical malpractice lawsuits; and 4) the effect of the medical malpractice environment on one’s own practice of medicine.

RESULTS

There were a total of 490 survey respondents, 83.5% of whom were employed in the US. Of the respondents, 39.5% stated they were frequently or always concerned about being sued, and 77.4% stated their fear had led to a change in how they practice medicine. For 58.4%, this change led to the practice of defensive medicine, while for others it led to more extensive documentation (14.3%) and/or to referring or dropping complex cases (12.4%).

Among the respondents, 80.9% at some time were named in a medical malpractice lawsuit and 12.3% more than 10 times. The main concerns expressed about being sued included losing confidence and practicing defensive medicine (17.8%), personal assets being at risk (16.9%), and being named in the National Practitioner Data Bank (15.6%). Given the medical malpractice environment, 58.7% of respondents considered referring complex patient cases, whereas 36.5% considered leaving the practice of medicine. The fear of being sued (OR 4.06, 95% CI 2.53–6.51) and the consideration of limiting the scope of practice (OR 3.08, 1.80–5.20) were both independently associated with higher odds of considering leaving the practice of medicine.

CONCLUSIONS

The current medicolegal landscape has a profound impact on neurosurgical practice. The fear of being sued, the financial aspects of practicing defensive medicine, and the proportion of neurosurgeons who are considering leaving the practice of medicine emphasize the need for a shift in the medicolegal landscape to a system in which fear of being sued does not play a dominant role and the interests of patients are protected.

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Nathan A. Shlobin, Mark Sheldon, and Sandi Lam

OBJECTIVE

Informed consent has served as a main principle of medical ethics and laws in the United States. The 1986 American Association of Neurological Surgeons Code of Ethics implied medicolegal liability for the failure to obtain informed consent without providing practical guidance regarding the application of informed consent to individual patient encounters in a medicolegal environment. Here, the authors aimed to identify baseline patient recall after discussions with neurosurgeons and their capacity to provide informed consent, describe the effects of interventions to improve patient comprehension, and elucidate the role of informed consent in malpractice litigation in neurosurgery. Their findings may guide neurosurgeons in discussions to properly inform patients and reduce the risk of litigation.

METHODS

A systematic review was conducted to explore informed consent within neurosurgery and its application to medicolegal liability using the PubMed, Embase, and Scopus databases. Titles and abstracts from articles identified in the search were read and selected for full-text review. Studies meeting prespecified inclusion criteria were reviewed in full and analyzed for study design, aim, population, interventions, and outcomes.

RESULTS

Of 1428 resultant articles, 21 were included in the review. Baseline patient recall was low, particularly for risks and alternatives of treatments, and even decreased over time. Cognitive impairment was noted as a factor limiting the ability to provide informed consent. Interventions incorporating a combination of modalities in informed consent discussions, a specialized consent form with points for neurosurgeons to check off upon discussion, interactive websites, question prompt lists, and illustrations were found to be effective in improving patient knowledge. Lack of informed consent was a common factor for malpractice litigation. Spine surgery was particularly prone to costly lawsuits. Payments were generally greater for plaintiff verdicts than for settlements.

CONCLUSIONS

The application of informed consent to patient encounters is an important facet of clinical practice. Neurosurgeons have a duty to provide patients with all pertinent information to allow them to make decisions about their care. The authors examined baseline patient comprehension and capacity, interventions to improve informed consent, and malpractice litigation; it appears that determining the proper capacity to provide informed consent and considering informed consent as a process that depends on the setting are important. There is room to improve the informed consent process centered on baseline patient health literacy and understanding as well as clear communication using multiple modalities.

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Bharat Guthikonda, Catherine A. Mazzola, Michael P. Steinmetz, Joseph S. Cheng, Jason D. Stacy, Asdrubal Falavigna, and Richard N. W. Wohns

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Daniel Rafter, Ranveer Vasdev, Duncan Hurrelbrink, Mark Gormley III, Tabitha Chettupally, Francis X. Shen, and Uzma Samadani

OBJECTIVE

Current guidelines do not specify timing for management of acute spinal cord injury (aSCI) due to lack of high-quality evidence supporting specific intervals for intervention. Randomized prospective trials may be unethical. Nonetheless, physicians have been sued for delays in diagnosis and intervention.

METHODS

The authors reviewed both the medical literature supporting the guidelines and the legal cases reported in the Westlaw and Lexis Advance databases from 1972 to 2018 resulting in awards or settlements, to identify whether surgeons are vulnerable to litigation despite the existence of guidelines not mandating specific timing of care.

RESULTS

Timing of intervention was related to claims in 59 (36%) of 163 cases involving SCI. All 22 trauma cases identified cited timing of intervention, sometimes related to delayed diagnosis, as a reason for the lawsuit. The mean award of 10 cases in which the plaintiffs’ awards were disclosed was $4,294,384. In the majority of cases, award amounts were not disclosed.

CONCLUSIONS

Because conduct of a prospective, randomized trial to investigate surgical timing of intervention for aSCI may not be achievable, evidence-based guidelines will be unlikely to mandate specific timing. Nonetheless, surgeons who unreasonably delay intervention for aSCI may be at risk for litigation due to treatment delay. This is increasingly likely in an environment where “complete” SCI is difficult to verify. SCI may at some point be recognized as a surgical emergency, as brain injury generally is, despite a lack of prospective randomized trials supporting this implementation, challenging the feasibility of the US trauma infrastructure to provide care for these patients.

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Bertrand Debono, Carole Gerson, Thierry Houselstein, Lynda Lettat-Ouatah, Renaud Bougeard, and Nicolas Lonjon

OBJECTIVE

Spinal surgeries carry risks of malpractice litigation due to the random nature of their functional results, which may not meet patient expectations, and the hazards associated with these complex procedures. Claims are frequent and costly. In France, since 2002, a new law, the Patients’ Rights Law of March 4, 2002, has created an alternative, out-of-court scheme, which established a simplified, rapid, free-of-charge procedure (Commission for Conciliation and Compensation [CCI]). Moreover, this law has optimized the compensation provided to patients for therapeutic hazards by use of a national solidarity fund. The authors analyzed the consequences of this alternative route in the case of claims against private neurosurgeons in France.

METHODS

From the data bank of the insurer Mutuelle d’Assurances du Corps de Santé Français (MACSF), the main insurance company for private neurosurgeons in France, the authors retrospectively analyzed 193 files covering the period 2015–2019. These computerized files comprised the anonymized medical records of the patients, the reports of the independent experts, and the final judgments of the CCI and the entities supporting the compensation, if any.

RESULTS

During the 5-year study period (2015–2019), the insurance company recorded 494 complaints involving private neurosurgeons for spinal surgery procedures, of which 126 (25.5%) were in civil court, 123 (24.9%) were under amicable procedure, and 245 (49.6%) were in the out-of-court scheme administered by the CCI. Out of these 245 cases, only 193 were closed due to delays. The conclusions of the commission were rejection/incompetence decisions in 47.2% of the cases, therapeutic hazards in 21.2%, nosocomial infections in 17.6%, and practitioner fault in 13.5%. National solidarity compensated for 48 complaints (24.8%). The final decision of the CCI is not always consistent with the conclusions of the experts mandated by it, illustrating the difficulty in defining the concept of hazards. The authors found that the therapeutic hazards retained and compensated by the national solidarity included decompensated spondylotic myelopathies (15% of the 40 cases) and cauda equina syndromes (30%). As allowed by law, 11.5% of the patients who were not satisfied triggered a classical procedure in a court.

CONCLUSIONS

In the French out-of-court system, trial decisions resulting in rulings of proven medical malpractice are rare, but patients can start a new procedure in the classical courts. The therapeutic hazard remains a subtle definition, which may be problematic and require further discussion between experts and magistrates. In spite of the imperfections, this out-of-court system proposes a major evolution to move patients and medical providers from legal battles to reconciliations.

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Leonardo J. M. de Macêdo Filho, Ana Carolina A. Aragão, Ian A. Moura, Lucas B. Olivier, and Lucas Alverne F. Albuquerque

OBJECTIVE

Neurosurgery occupies a prominent place in medical malpractice, but cases are still underreported in Brazil. This study describes the socioeconomic issues of medical malpractice in neurosurgery procedures and how they culminate in unfavorable outcomes in a developing country.

METHODS

The authors analyzed 112 neurosurgical procedures listed in the Brazilian Hospital Information System (Sistema de Informações Hospitalares do Sistema Único de Saúde [SIHSUS]) records in the DATASUS (Departamento de Informática do SUS) database between January 2008 and February 2020. Malpractice data were collected using the JusBrasil platform, with the authors searching the name of each of the 112 neurosurgical procedures plus “medical malpractice” among the jurisprudence records for January 2008 to February 2020. A simple linear regression analysis was performed using appropriate software. Analyses were considered statistically significant at p < 0.05.

RESULTS

According to DATASUS, 842,041 neurosurgical procedures were performed by the Brazilian Unified Health System between January 2008 and February 2020. The mean hospitalization cost for neurosurgical procedures was $714.06, and the average amount paid to professionals per procedure was $145.28 with variations according to the type of practice (public or private) in which they were performed, the complexity of the procedure, and the Brazilian region. The mortality rate and mean length of stay for neurosurgical procedures were 11.37% and 10.15 days, respectively. There were 79 medical malpractice lawsuits in the studied period. In these lawsuits, 26.58% of the court decisions were unfavorable to the neurosurgeons, with a mean compensation per procedure 15 times higher than the median value paid for all professionals in a neurosurgical procedure. The spine subspecialty had more lawsuits, and the brain tumor subspecialty had the most expensive compensation.

A lack of resources in public healthcare negatively impacts inpatient care. The mortality rate was 1.5 times higher in public practice than in private practice and was inversely proportional to the MTCs paid for the neurosurgical procedure. Patients with the lower educational levels associated with limited access to good medical care could reflect the lower plaintiff motivation in regions with a low gross domestic product and Human Development Index. In most cases, there is no understanding from either the patient or his family about the health-disease process, nor that there was medical malpractice committed by the physician to be sued.

CONCLUSIONS

The socioeconomic inequalities and the population’s low awareness of their rights could explain the few malpractice cases reported in Brazil. The authors recommend better decisions regarding the investments to be made in neurosurgical procedures to reduce malpractice lawsuits.

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Andre E. Boyke, Edward R. Bader, Ishan Naidu, Sharon Lam, Mohammed Ali Alvi, Abigail Funari, and Vijay Agarwal

OBJECTIVE

Among medical practices, surgical fields, including neurosurgery, are at a high risk for medical malpractice litigation. With meningiomas contributing to 10% of the total neurosurgery litigation cases, the aim of this study was to identify demographic characteristics, reasons for litigation, and surgical complications commonly reported in these cases. This analysis serves to increase neurosurgeons’ awareness of factors associated with medical malpractice litigation.

METHODS

The online legal database Westlaw was utilized to query public litigation cases related to the medical management of meningiomas between December 1985 and May 2020. Variables extracted included the following: plaintiff and defendant demographics, litigation category, plaintiff medical complaints, and trial outcomes. The authors compared these characteristics between cases with decisions in favor of the defendant and those with decisions in favor of the plaintiff.

RESULTS

A total of 47 cases met the inclusion criteria. Failure to diagnose (68.1%) was the most common type of malpractice claim, and surgical complications (19.1%), motor weakness (33%), and financial loss (33%) were cited as the most common postoperative complaints. Individual specialties that most often required defense due to malpractice claims were radiology (21.7%) and neurosurgery (19.6%). The jury verdict was in favor of the defense in 51.1% of cases and in favor of the plaintiff in 27.7% of cases. A settlement was reached in 19.1% of cases. The mean payout for a verdict in favor of the plaintiff was $3,409,650.22, while the mean payout for settlements was $867,555.56. The greatest average payout for specialties was in neurosurgery at $3,414,400, followed by radiology at $3,192,960. Cases with a verdict in favor of the plaintiff were more likely to involve an internal medicine physician as a defendant (p = 0.007).

CONCLUSIONS

Over one-half of the cases resulted in a defendant’s verdict with failure to diagnose cited as the most common reason for litigation. Radiology and neurosurgery were the most common specialties for legal cases and also had some of the largest average payouts based on specialty. Motor weakness and financial loss were the most common plaintiff postoperative complaints. These findings may inform surgeons on active measures to take, such as increasing focus on diagnostic accuracy and reducing specific postoperative complaints, such as motor weakness, through risk management and prophylactic measures, to reduce unfavorable legal outcomes.

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Zachary A. Medress, Michael C. Jin, Austin Feng, Kunal Varshneya, and Anand Veeravagu

Medical malpractice is an important but often underappreciated topic within neurosurgery, particularly for surgeons in the early phases of practice. The practice of spinal neurosurgery involves substantial risk for litigation, as both the natural history of the conditions being treated and the operations being performed almost always carry the risk of permanent damage to the spinal cord or nerve roots, a cardiopulmonary event, death, or other dire outcomes. In this review, the authors discuss important topics related to medical malpractice in spine surgery, including tort reform, trends and frequency of litigation claims in spine surgery, wrong-level and wrong-site surgery, catastrophic outcomes including spinal cord injury and death, and ethical considerations.

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Eric W. Sankey, Vikram A. Mehta, Timothy Y. Wang, Tracey T. Than, C. Rory Goodwin, Isaac O. Karikari, Christopher I. Shaffrey, Muhammad M. Abd-El-Barr, and Khoi D. Than

Spine surgery has been disproportionately impacted by medical liability and malpractice litigation, with the majority of claims and payouts related to procedural error. One common area for the potential avoidance of malpractice claims and subsequent payouts involves misplaced pedicle and/or lateral mass instrumentation. However, the medicolegal impact of misplaced screws on spine surgery has not been directly reported in the literature. The authors of the current study aimed to describe this impact in the United States, as well as to suggest a potential method for mitigating the problem.

This retrospective analysis of 68 closed medicolegal cases related to misplaced screws in spine surgery showed that neurosurgeons and orthopedic spine surgeons were equally named as the defendant (n = 32 and 31, respectively), and cases were most commonly due to misplaced lumbar pedicle screws (n = 41, 60.3%). Litigation resulted in average payouts of $1,204,422 ± $753,832 between 1995 and 2019, when adjusted for inflation. The median time to case closure was 56.3 (35.2–67.2) months when ruled in favor of the plaintiff (i.e., patient) compared to 61.5 (51.4–77.2) months for defendant (surgeon) verdicts (p = 0.117).

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David I. Bass, Amy Lee, Samuel R. Browd, Richard G. Ellenbogen, and Jason S. Hauptman

The purpose of this article is to serve as a rational guide for the pediatric neurosurgeon in navigating common medicolegal issues that arise in the management of abusive head trauma (AHT). Many of these issues may be unfamiliar or unpleasant to surgeons focused on addressing disease. The authors begin with a brief history on the origins of the diagnosis of AHT and the controversy surrounding it, highlighting some of the facets of the diagnosis that make it particularly unique in pediatric neurosurgery. They then review some special medical considerations in these patients through the perspective of the neurosurgeon and provide several examples as illustration. The authors discuss how to appropriately document these cases in the medical record for expected legal review, and last, they provide an overview of the legal process through which the neurosurgeon may be called to provide testimony.