Objective: To understand how practice guidelines are used in malpractice litigation.
Design: Review of the open and closed malpractice claims of two medical malpractice insurance companies, and a mailed survey of attorneys who litigate malpractice claims.
Setting: United States.
Participants: Two insurance companies and 960 randomly selected malpractice attorneys.
Measurements: Frequency and nature of the use of practice guidelines in litigation; understanding and frequency of the use of practice guidelines by attorneys in malpractice cases.
Results: 259 claims opened in 1990-1992 at two insurance companies, including all obstetrics and anesthesia claims and a random sample of other claims, were reviewed. Seventeen of these claims involved practice guidelines, which were used as exculpatory evidence (exonerating the defendant physician) in 4 cases and as inculpatory evidence (implicating the defendant physician) in 12 cases. The only physician or patient factors associated with use of a guideline was a longer physician–patient relationship (P = 0.021). Nine hundred and sixty surveys were mailed and 578 were returned (response rate, 60.1%). Attorneys reported that once a suit is initiated, practice guidelines are likely to be used for inculpatory purposes (inculpatory in 54% of cases; exculpatory in 22.7% of cases). However, guidelines that seem to offer exculpatory value induce attorneys not to bring suits. The only attorney factor associated with increased use of guidelines was a practice in which more than 50% of business was in medical malpractice.
Conclusions: Guidelines are used both by plaintiffs' and defendants' attorneys in malpractice cases. The emphasis in health reform proposals on guidelines as exculpatory evidence should be carefully considered.